The Exquisite Lightness of Being

A few years ago, I was reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and came across the most beautiful phrase: “the traveler’s exquisite lightness of being.” It became a sort of personal mantra for me as I whittled down my possessions to a single bag, and traveled throughout Europe and Asia with nothing more than a large purse. I’d never felt so light, so liberated, so free. Read the entire post…

Lagom

lagomI’ve always been a big fan of Swedish design and culture—I love their restrained décor, their use of light and natural materials, their respect for the environment, their healthy lifestyles, their strong sense of equality. So it comes as no surprise that Sweden is also the origin of one of my favorite concepts: lagom. The word has no direct English equivalent, but is perhaps best translated as “just the right amount.”

The lovely thing about lagom is that it’s a desirable state of appropriateness, or enoughness—and has nothing to do with scarcity or deprivation. It’s both the opposite of having too much and too little, and instead a celebration of moderation.

A popular story claims that the word is a contraction of the Viking phrase “laget om,” which specified how much mead one should drink from the horn as it was passed around the table—presumably just enough, so that everyone received their fair share. It’s a wonderful example of the social and economic equality in Swedish society; the country has a remarkably egalitarian income distribution, and one of the world’s lowest levels of poverty.

So how can we incorporate a little lagom into our lives?

* Resist the “too much” of hoarding. As minimalists, we should all be doing this anyway—but even if you’ve found the “perfect” t-shirt or pair of black pants, don’t stock up on half a dozen when one or two will do.

* Resist the “too little” of extremism. Sure, the siren call of 100-item minimalism, or living out of a backpack, can be quite strong; but if it’s not appropriate for your lifestyle or family at this time, it’s not lagom.

* Embrace equality. Our planet’s population is growing, and its resources are limited. When we over-consume, we take more than our fair share—leaving less for other people, and future generations. By limiting our personal consumption (or donating some of our excess wealth or possessions) we can better ensure there’s enough to go around for others.

* Embrace enough. Whether it’s food, wine, hobbies, or material possessions, don’t overindulge. In fact, we tend to savor and appreciate things more when quantities are limited.

I’d love to hear from some of my Swedish readers regarding lagom…as well as other international readers, on whether this wonderful concept has an equivalent in your culture.

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

Happier Without

happier withoutThe consumption society has made us feel that happiness lies in having things, and has failed to teach us the happiness of not having things. -Elise Boulding

What a wonderful quote, and so true! We’re constantly bombarded with the message to buy, buy, and buy some more—it’s hardly ever suggested that we might find greater satisfaction in not owning something. Yes, you read it here, week in and week out; but I’m just one tiny voice questioning the status quo—hardly a match for the marketers and advertisers that command so much of our visual and auditory attention.

So after three years of blogging, I’ve been inspired to look back and celebrate the things I’ve learned I’d rather not have. I’ve included links, and hope you enjoy my walk down memory lane. Better yet, I’d love it if each of you would share one post (or more!) with someone else via email, Twitter, or Facebook.

My website stats say I had 93,971 unique visitors last month (!)—imagine if all 93K+ of you passed on the minimalist message to someone else? We might actually create a ripple effect to drown out some of the more-is-more rhetoric, and introduce a greater audience to “the happiness of not having things.”

So here they are: 15 Things I’m Happier Without (and you might be, too!)

1. Television. In Life Without a TV, I wrote about how my husband and I gave up our television when we moved overseas in 2009. See my No TV Update: Three Years and Counting to learn how we feel about pulling the plug.

2. Couch. During our time in England, we lived without a couch—for seating, we used two Ikea Poang chairs instead. Although we’ve now been reunited with our sofa-in-storage (and need the seating for frequent guests), I’d still prefer to do without.

3. Desk. Last year, I shared a photo of My Minimalist Workspace: a windowsill and floor cushion. From the time I was a child, I’ve never really been comfortable at a desk. I wrote my book, The Joy of Less, on the floor. :)

4. Bed frame. In My Tiny Apartment Tour, I gave readers a sneak peek into My Minimalist Bedroom. A mattress on the floor is my idea of a serene oasis!

5. Other furniture. While I thought we lived with The Bare Essentials in England, we downsized to just a coffee table and mattress in our Empty, White, and Beautiful summer sublet. If you want some instant decluttering gratification, I recommend ditching a piece or two of furniture—here are 15 Pieces of Furniture You May Not Really Need.

6. Curtains. Ah, how I love Naked Windows! Our current house has translucent fabric shades on the street side, but the back-facing windows are bare as can be.

7. Collectibles. In my post On Not Collecting, I wrote about dissolving a cocktail shaker collection, piece by piece, on eBay—and how I never again wanted to own 10, 20, or 30 of something. This holds particularly true for any kind of valuables; I’d much rather have Nothing to Steal.

8. Books. Physical books, that is. When I moved abroad and became separated from my favorite tomes (which were too heavy and expensive to ship), I became a huge fan of ebooks. I dream of someday having a completely digital library.

9. Hobby supplies. I’d rather not have a closetful of craft supplies, or garageful of hobby and/or sports equipment. Therefore, I try to focus on Minimalist Hobbies—leisure and creative pursuits that don’t involve the acquisition or storage of a lot of stuff.

10. Specialty kitchenware. I’ve pared my kitchen essentials down to a few versatile pieces (What’s in a Minimalist Kitchen?)—just enough to cook and eat our favorite foods, without relying on restaurants or takeout.

11. Heirlooms. I suspect I’m not the only one who could do without a relative’s “treasures.” See The Top Ten Ways to Declutter Heirlooms to learn how you can gracefully part ways with grandma’s china.

12. Large wardrobe. I began my minimalist journey with two closets full of clothing, and eventually pared down to a suitcase. Last year, I shared with you my 10-Item Wardrobe—the pieces that get me through the majority of my daily activities, in every season.

13. Mail. Stopping the postal deluge gives me far less paperwork to deal with; here’s my advice on creating a Minimalist Mailbox.

14. Perfume. When I learned about the health risks of perfume (and the environmental impacts of its production and distribution), I went fragrance-free. Perfume is One Less Thing I need in my life.

15. Gifts. I’m blessed with everything I need, and prefer my friends’ and family’s presence over presents. If you feel the same—and dread accumulating more stuff over the holidays—you may enjoy my Gift Avoidance Guide.

Again, I’d be delighted if you’d share a post or two with friends and family. I think the idea of minimalist living is just beginning to gain momentum, and would love to introduce some more people to the lifestyle.

So tell us in the Comments–what are you happier without? Or here’s an interesting question: what was the first thing you realized you were happier without, that started you down a minimalist path?

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

Undone

undoneA few weeks before I had Plumblossom, a wise friend told me: “In those first months, don’t worry about getting things done. Just be with your baby.”

Oh my goodness, what wonderful advice! Before then, I couldn’t imagine not writing weekly blog posts, answering emails within two days, or letting the dishes sit in the sink. But with a huge, new responsibility, I just couldn’t do everything anymore. And guess what? Life went on, and the world didn’t stop spinning. It took my life being turned upside down (in a good way) before I could come to terms with leaving things undone.

So let me shorten this advice so it applies to everyone: “Don’t worry about getting things done. Just be.”

It’s a great thing to practice as summer winds down, and we savor the remaining days of warm weather and daylight after dinner.

Recall those carefree, childhood summers—run barefoot in the grass, lounge on your porch, chase fireflies. Read a novel. Take an afternoon nap. Have a leisurely cup of tea.

Above all, give yourself permission to be, rather than do.

With a new house, my husband and I have a million things To Do: not just everyday chores, but improvements, repairs, and finishing touches. We’d intended to knock some of these off the list last weekend. But in the midst of a hot summer, we had some surprisingly mild weather. So what did we do? Both Saturday and Sunday, we took Plumblossom on a relaxing, five-mile walk through our local park. Everything else? We left it undone.

The trim that needed painting in the sunroom? Undone.

The roof that needed clearing of branches? Undone.

The shower curtain rod that needed to be installed? Undone.

The blog post that needed to be written? Undone.

The floors that needed to be mopped? Undone.

These things will get done eventually (and some, like the floors and post, already have). But we decided that that weekend we would be, not do. And it was beautiful.

Need a little more inspiration to decrease your productivity? Heed these sage words:

Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is a nobler art of leaving things undone…The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of nonessentials. –Lin Yutang

Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place. –Lao-tzu

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished. –Lao-tzu

The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough. –Rabindranath Tagore

Idleness is not doing nothing. Idleness is being free to do anything. – Floyd Dell

So from now on, instead of stressing about the size of my To Do list, I’ve decided to take pride in the size of my Undone list. For it means I’ve minimized my “busyness” in favor of the more important stuff in life: spending time with my loved ones, enjoying nature, being in the moment.

What will you leave undone today?

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

Walls of Stuff

(Photo: RBerteig)

An observation from my minimalist life: when you don’t have a lot of stuff in your home, you tend to look outward for entertainment.

When my husband and I lived in our tiny flat in England, we rarely spent our leisure time indoors—other than reading or cooking, there simply wasn’t much to do. Instead, weekends and evenings would find us walking the streets of London, or the idyllic paths of the countryside.

The same holds true now: even though we live in a larger house, there’s still not much to keep us inside. During the day, I usually put Plumblossom in my Baby Bjorn carrier, wander through the neighborhood, and chat with anyone who happens to be out and about. On weekends, our little family goes for long walks and picnics in a local park. As far as I can tell, Plumblossom—budding minimalist that she is—much prefers an outdoor jaunt than staying inside and playing with toys. And my husband and I would certainly rather get some fresh air and exercise than sit around at home.

Along my minimalist journey, I’ve learned that too much stuff can build up into walls around us—keeping us isolated from everything and everyone out there. When we declutter, we dismantle those stacks and mounds and piles of clutter, and reconnect with the world at large. Oftentimes, it’s simply a matter of pursuing our interests and activities on public ground rather than private.

Here’s a few examples:

* Instead of buying (and storing) a treadmill or rowing machine, go for walks/runs or join a recreational athletic league.

* Instead of outfitting a media room with the latest and greatest in viewing technology, take your family out to the movies.

* Instead of owning an ice cream maker, cappuccino machine, or specialty bakeware, go out for an indulgent treat.

* Instead of accumulating collectibles, visit a gallery or museum (or window shop) to satisfy your aesthetic interests.

* Instead of stashing away closetfuls of craft supplies, take a class or course in your hobby of choice. That way, you can use the studio’s equipment rather than invest in your own.

As I write in my book, The Joy of Less:

In our quest to become minimalists, we want to reduce the amount of things in our homes that require our care and attention. Fortunately, we have ample opportunity to do so—simply by shifting some of our pleasures and activities into the public realm. In fact, such action produces a pretty wonderful side effect. For when we hang out in parks, museums, movie houses, and coffee shops—instead of trying to create similar experiences in our own homes—we become significantly more socially active and civically engaged. By breaking down the walls of stuff around us, we’re able to get out into the world and enjoy fresher, more direct, and more rewarding experiences.

Do you have any walls of stuff you need to break down? Tell us about it in the Comments!

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

Freedom

(Photo: Ardyiii)

A reporter once asked me, “What’s the best thing about being a minimalist”?

I answered with one word: freedom.

Really, that’s what it all boils down to for me. When my home, my schedule, and my mind are stripped free of excess, I feel completely unencumbered.

Too much stuff can enslave us in myriad ways. Physically, it can take over our homes, crowding us and our children out of precious living space. It can also drastically reduce our mobility, creating an inertia that discourages us from moving and embracing promising new opportunities.

It can also weigh on us psychologically, dragging on our spirits and energy until we feel too overwhelmed and lethargic to accomplish anything. Conversely, a decluttered room or streamlined desk does wonders for our motivation—we can think more clearly, and act more purposefully, without the visual distraction.

And finally, excess possessions can enslave us financially. Credit card debt chains us to the work-and-spend treadmill, and can impede our plans to make a career change, go back to school, or start our own business.

The good news: every time we toss (or choose not to acquire) an unnecessary item, we gain a little bit of freedom: from paying for it, storing it, cleaning it, repairing it, maintaining it, protecting it, insuring it, worrying about it, and schlepping it around.

Those little bits of freedom add up, and have a dramatic impact on our lives.

Personally, minimalism gave me the freedom to sell my house and possessions, and start a new life overseas as a digital nomad.

Minimalism has enabled me to travel the world with a tiny bag, immersing myself in the local culture instead of looking (and feeling) like a tourist.

Minimalism afforded me the financial freedom to pursue my dream of becoming a full-time writer.

Minimalism freed my heart, my mind, and my time to welcome a little bundle of joy this past winter.

Minimalism makes me see each day as full of joy and potential, rather than chores and commitments.

I’d love to know: what kind of freedom has minimalism given you? Has it enabled you to make a cross-country move, start a new hobby, pursue a degree, start a family? Please share with us in the Comments!

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

Minimalist Philosophy: Not-To-Have and Not-To-Be

Today I’d like to share with you a little philosophical piece by Dutch author Janwillem Van de Wetering:

You are eight years old. It is Sunday evening. You have been granted an extra hour before bed.

The family is playing Monopoly. You have been told that you are big enough to join them.

You lose. You are losing continuously. Your stomach cramps with fear. Nearly all your possessions are gone. The money pile in front of you is almost gone. Your brothers are snatching all the houses from your streets. The last street is being sold. You have to give in. You have lost.

And suddenly you know that it is only a game. You jump with joy and you knock the big lamp over. It falls on the floor and drags the teapot with it. The others are angry with you, but you laugh when you go upstairs.

You know you are nothing and know you have nothing. And you know that not-to-be and not-to-have give an immeasurable freedom.

Ah, the freedom not-to-be and not-to-have…that’s what I love about this quote!

It’s so refreshing in a society where there’s so much pressure to-have (the big house, the new car, the right clothes) and to-be (the perfect spouse, the supermom, the model employee).

But isn’t a life of acquisition—of property, of cars, of possessions, of status, of power—little more than a game of Monopoly? For in the end, we can’t take it with us; all the spoils go back into the pool, for a new round of players. We’re not even guaranteed to be remembered for the perfect people we strove to be; our loved ones are more likely to recall that we were fun to be with, rather than that we maintained our abs or chaired the PTA.

Although I recently purchased a house, and some furniture, and a few plates for dinner guests, I still feel relatively detached from it all. Back in my younger adulthood, I might have agonized over finding the perfect house, the perfect sofa, the perfect tableware—and goodness knows how devastated I might have been if circumstances caused me to lose them.

Now, however, I see all these things as just things—serving a practical function for the moment, and readily disposable (or, more accurately, saleable or donateable) when they no longer do. Sometimes I almost feel like I’m playing house, as the material things in my life have little more significance than a game.

I’m also learning to reject the pressure to-be. I’ll do my best to be a good writer, a good wife, a good mom, a good friend—but not stress out too much when I sometimes fall short of my goals. Far better to devote my days to enjoying my work and my family, rather than striving to achieve some prescribed ideal.

I’m grateful that as minimalists, we can keep the expectations of society, and their relative unimportance, in perspective—and instead of striving for more and more, we can laugh, jump for joy, and enjoy our immeasurable freedom.

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

The Floating World

I recently came across an interesting quote from Ryokan, the Zen Buddhist monk and poet who lived in eighteenth-century Japan:

I see people in the world
Throw away their lives lusting after things,
Never able to satisfy their desires,
Falling into deep despair
And torturing themselves.
Even if they get what they want
How long will they be able to enjoy it?
For one heavenly pleasure
They suffer ten torments of hell,
Binding themselves more firmly
to the grindstone.
Such people are like monkeys
Frantically grasping for the moon in the water
And then falling into a whirlpool.
How endlessly those caught up
in the floating world
Suffer.

These old words of wisdom immediately brought to mind our modern consumer culture and struggles with credit card debt. How much easier it is to reject the lure of material excess, than to be shackled to unfulfilling jobs (“the grindstone”) to pay for things we don’t really need. For in most cases, those things are inessential to our happiness.

As Ryokan states, we suffer when we get caught up in “the floating world”–that is, the transient world of material pleasure. It’s sort of an ancient way of saying “you can’t take it with you.” Why spend this precious life in pursuit of money, power, or possessions—especially when the satisfaction is fleeting, or worse yet, causes the dissatisfaction of even greater craving?

So how can we resist falling into the materialism of the floating world?

* Avoid advertisements. When you don’t know certain products exist (or how wonderful they’re claimed to be), you don’t want them. There’s no reason to long for them, no pressure to buy them, and no stress to pay for them.

* Don’t follow trends. Magazines and marketers tout the new “must-haves” every season–and make you feel like you’ll be left behind if you don’t purchase the latest and greatest. Acquire things only to satisfy needs, rather than for the sake of novelty or social status.

* Want what you have. Most of us have so much stuff, it seems ludicrous to feel any sense of deprivation. When you’re tempted to acquire something new, spend some time thinking about, being grateful for (and listing out, if it helps!) what you already have.

* “Be” instead of “buy.” Marketers encourage us to identify with the products we buy, and shop as a means of self-expression. Remember: you are not what you own. When you break the spell of consumption, you gain freedom—from advertisers, from debt, and from the rat race.

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

Minimalist Lifestyle For Sale?

When I was a teenager, I was enamored with the J. Crew catalog—not so much for the trendy-preppy clothes, but the chic lifestyles depicted on its pages. I’d spend a lazy hour with each new issue, looking for inspiration as to what kind of glamorous life I might lead someday.

When the spring issued arrived, I’d daydream about cavorting in a meadow of wildflowers with ten of my closest friends (no matter that my friends were far more interested in going to the mall than a meadow).

The summer issue had me fantasizing about riding a perfectly-battered vintage bicycle, in my flipflops and sundress, through a quaint little beach town (no matter that the nearest beach towns were crammed with cheesy bars and sweaty tourists).

With the fall issue, I imagined myself strolling the leafy paths of an Ivy League campus, and cozying up in a grand old library filled with leather-bound tomes (ok, I actually lived this one).

And, oh, the winter issue! That’s when my imagination would really take flight. I pictured myself celebrating the holidays, with my extended family, on a fabulous New England estate–riding in our own sleigh (of course) to pick out a Christmas tree on the expansive, snow-covered grounds. (No matter that landing on such an estate would likely require marrying into a moneyed, Kennedy-like clan—and my teenage heart fell for artists and musicians rather than the sons of senators).

I consumed these lifestyles just as I would the flirty sundress, low-rise khakis, or roll-neck sweater that went along with them.

But after years of envisioning which “catalog life” I might lead, complete with its clothing and accessories, the one I fell into was so vastly different—and, I’m happy to say, required no purchases whatsoever.

When I became a minimalist, over a decade ago, there was nothing trendy or chic about it. In contrast, people considered my penchant for empty spaces and few possessions to be rather strange and eccentric.

Fast forward to this NY Times article, “Selling the Pared-Down Life.” It’s about LifeEdited, the latest venture by Treehugger founder Graham Hill, and describes the aim of his fledgling company to sell “small-space, sustainable… high-end living” to the masses. (If you have any doubt that big profits are anticipated, consider that billionaire entrepreneur Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com, is being wooed as an investor.)

I certainly appreciate the idealism behind it, and applaud any effort to champion a “right-sized” lifestyle to the public at large. But I can’t help but wonder (or should I say worry): has minimalism become another lifestyle to consume, along with the right convertible furniture, smart phone, and wardrobe of merino wool?

One might argue that I’ve contributed to the “packaging” of minimalism as a lifestyle; after all, I’ve been blogging for nearly three years and have a book for sale on the topic (with yes, a link at the bottom of this post—but you can borrow it from the library if you prefer). However, I’ve stopped short of peddling other products or selling advertising space on my website. In my opinion, minimalism isn’t conferred upon you when you purchase a snazzy set of nesting bowls; it’s a state of mind that’s cultivated slowly and deliberately, and ideally, will lead you to decide that you don’t need said bowls in the first place. ;-)

I’m all for quality over quantity, and being mindful about the products we buy—it’s a great strategy for avoiding the clutter that can accumulate otherwise. However, let’s not use minimalism as an excuse to consume more stuff (however high-end, beautifully-designed, or space-saving it may be). Let’s keep in mind that what we’re really striving for is less—and that remaking, reusing, and repurposing what we already own can be a far more effective way to achieve it.

Do you think minimalism has been co-opted by corporate America? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter!

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

Swept

(Photo: Katie@!)

I’d like to wrap up the year with one of my favorite haikus, by Matsuo Basho:

Year’s end, all
corners of this
floating world, swept.

The activities and accoutrements of the holiday season can sometimes be overwhelming, and I love the idea of finishing the year with a clean slate.

Let’s take these final days of December to sweep out our corners—of clutter and commitments, of drama and distractions.

Let’s ignore those after-Christmas sales, stay out of the stores, and put consumption on the backburner.

Let’s clean out our closets, clear out our schedules, and cull our To Do lists.

Let’s purge any worries, disappointments or negative emotions of the past year.

Let’s let go of stress and expectations, chaos and busyness.

Let’s slow down, unplug, relax, and be still.

As 2011 winds down, let’s renew our focus on our minimalist journey; let’s ditch the baggage of the old year, and resolve to travel more lightly through the new one.

Let’s start 2012 in serenity and peace, with a swept home, mind, and soul.

Happy New Year!

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}