Some years ago I met someone in Toronto who invited me back to his small apartment. He was a minimalist, meaning that he was deeply committed to living with as little as possible while maintaining engagement in normal life. After walking a long distance to his place (intentionally avoiding motorised transport) I recall having a cup of tea and something to eat, an awkward experience because he had only one cup and one fork. I was inspired by his commitment, yet left feeling his drive for simplicity had ended up in a weird kind of austerity.
In this phase of life Maria and I are living transiently. A few years ago when we vacated the house in which we had raised our four children, we threw out skips full of junk, gave away virtually all our furniture and took many loads to op shops. It wasn’t because the stuff we had wasn’t valuable or held memories, but we decided to declutter and facilitate a mobile lifestyle that is impossible if you have to maintain a lots of ‘stuff’. (and yes we store a few boxes with photos and kids toys etc, things that money cannot replace.)
But we kept some things that, at face value, are not necessities. Pruning our possessions was not a discipline of eliminating non-luxury items or keeping a small wardrobe of white T shirts. It was an exercise in surrounding ourselves with the few things that facilitated pleasant, good and meaningful living. The books I kept weren’t the best books I owned, they were the most meaningful to me. The couple of bits of furniture we kept for our 1 bedroom apartment were not the most expensive but the ones that had stories associated with them. And yes, it’s a bit cliche, but it also means that when we buy things that we intend to keep, we pay for handmade or quality to last the distance. A few things that matter.
The current Kinfolk is the Essential Issue. It contains this great introductory sentence, “Deciding what is essential in our lives isn’t about paring back our belongings and forgoing our beloved but unnecessary frivolities: Instead of determining how little we can live with, it’s about working out what we simply can’t live without.”
This same idea surfaced for me in a surprising context a few days ago. A friend asked me what I do to maintain mental health. As I thought out loud, I realised I have a few ‘modes’ of living. For the sake of simplicity, lets call them ‘on’, ‘slow’, and ‘yurting’. In each of them, as is true for everybody juggling contemporary urban living, there are a multitude of things going on and decisions to be made. But I am at my best when I have a system or set of processes that take good care of all of them automatically, except for a very small number. I could call it focus, but that doesn’t do the concept justice. I’m ‘on’, when I’m working. Adrenalin pumps through my veins from when I get up to when I go to bed and I need less sleep in this mode. I walk faster, I eat more functionally, I do everything in ways that help me work better. In this mode, it is all about making a positive difference in the world through my work with clients in values driven organisations. I have routines and systems that take care of domestic decisions (clothes, food, cleaning, shopping, and yes even family etc) so those things take up very little emotional energy as a rule.
When I’m in ‘slow’ mode, typically at home with Maria on the weekends I cook, go to markets, get exercise, explore the natural environment and sit around. Conversely, I have habits and systems that mean I spend very little energy on work. It is simple things like where I put my computer, and the clothes I wear. Call it anal, but it works for me. It means my attention and energy is present in our weekend-type activity. ‘Yurting mode’ is harder to explain but you get the idea. Be present in the context and determine ways to take care of decisions and distractions that don’t permit you to be present.
The point I am attempting to make is that simplicity is an extremely potent lifestyle choice for me, one that I believe contributes to my mental health. And it’s not the simplicity that smells of austerity. Minimalist austerity is a poor idea when compared with essentialist simplicity. One is clinical and transactional, the other rich with values and embraced compromise. Identify the essentials, the things that matter most (in that context/mode) and figure out ways for the other stuff to take as little energy as possible.