Simple Living Style v Simply Life

It is that difficult period of winter-into-spring. It is assuredly not spring weather out there. As I write this, there is a four foot deep mound of snow all along the side of my path and it’s 8°F as the dusk gathers. That’s -13°C for the rest of the world. The forecasted low is -12°F, -24° for celsius speakers. So… not spring…

But it’s also 5:15pm and still light out. Civil twilight ends at 5:35 today, meaning I can walk out to the mailbox to check for mail without turning on the porch light. Being I’m the last stop on my delivery person’s route, mail shows up after five most evenings. In the deep midwinter, it’s so dark I often dig out my phone flashlight to be able see into the box. But by now, day light — sunrise to sunset — has lengthened over an hour since the beginning of the year, and thus I can see those missed mailers without fumbling for a light (oh goody). So the shift to longer spring days has become obvious. Now we wait for the temperature to shift as well… which takes a little longer. (Another continent-wide snow storm is brewing as I type…)

At this time of year, I’m usually chomping at the bit, wanting to get on with the growing season because there’s all this energizing growing light. But it’s going to be weeks, maybe months, before I can do much of anything outdoors. So I have to channel my energy into indoor projects. Mostly this time of year, that involves cleaning and organizing. Since it’s too cold to throw open the house and air out the place without incurring a harrowing oil bill and since I tend to run a tight ship on cleanliness anyway (germaphobe), the early spring cleanse runs toward deep cleaning and maintenance projects that can be done with the windows closed. I’m fighting a cold war with the bathtub drain these days, and there’s been much polishing of wood and oiling of hinges to keep up with winter shrinkage. I am restraining myself from getting out spring colors and scents, trying to remain “present” though I am so very over winter weather.

So mainly I’m doing lots of organizing. I’m still finding spaces that could be better managed in this house. Probably will for the next couple years as I learn how to be here — what is needed, what is not, and when. Having moved house and ended a 30-year marriage in the last twelve months, I have recently done a great purge of unnecessary stuff. And anyway, I don’t have a good handle on what constitutes “necessary” here yet, so I don’t have anything to box up for the Restore. But then, I tend not to acquire things that will go away, so I usually don’t have large donate piles. And I will not participate in the disposable economy. I keep a lean house on the front end, not on the back end. Don’t buy much rather than figure out what to do with it later. And I fix and repurpose things far more than I donate and dispose.

I have learned that I am not a Marie Kondo fan. I don’t subscribe to the idea that we should box up all the things we aren’t using Right Now and pass them on. For one thing, many things — especially in my old and idiosyncratic home — are not going to be of use to anyone but me. This is particularly true of books. I was horrified to hear that Kondo tells her votaries to toss books that have been read. Once. (I also HATE that nonsense of using books primarily as virtue signaling décor. There is a specific level of hell reserved for people who “order” bookshelves by color… sorry… bookseller pet peeve…) In any case, if I were to toss my library, it would largely end up in a landfill because we aren’t very good at even recycling bound books, let alone rereading them. But it also applies to things I’ve kept for sentimental reasons, like clothes. Yes, I do still have my Bauhaus concert shirt and a VlogBrothers Pizza John shirt signed by the brothers in question. And nope, nobody else wants that stuff. (Not least because some of it is very well-loved and suffered through my repair-work learning curve…)

If I followed the Kondo way, I’d be obliged to shed these things that are just memories. I shouldn’t have a cedar chest of baby stuff set aside for my sons. I shouldn’t have a dresser drawer full of not much but memorabilia. And I really shouldn’t have Son#2’s 5th grade mag-lev science fair project nor his enormous DIY Linux machine brooding in my attic. But I do… because if I don’t keep that stuff, it’s trash. (Well, not the computer… but then again I doubt too many people around here are going to know what to do with it… so maybe…) Yet, if I do keep that stuff, it may actually get used again at some point. (Well, maybe not the Bauhaus shirt.) It will at least mean something to the people who inherit this home. Point is, it’s not trash in my life, but it is in every other life out there. So simplifying the Kondo way means making trash.

But I don’t advocate passing on even the things that somebody else out there might want merely because I’m not using them right now. If I’ve already found the occasion to acquire them in the first place, it’s likely I’m going to need them again at some point. The unspoken nastiness in the paring-down style books is that you either have to find a really good sharing circle or library of things that can meet all your unusual needs — size 70 knitting needles, fruit pit removers, post hole diggers, pasta cutters, hex keys, fancy spring table linens, dog nail clippers, plumbing snakes, and on and on and on — or you have to spend money on these things on the odd, but ineluctable occasion when you find you need them. Often repeatedly. Given that these are rarely needed supplies, it may be that you’ll have to purchase them, not just rent, maybe even online if you live in a small community, because the local shops may not see the point of taking up shelf space with something that will sell only once in a blue moon. Similarly, your library of things might not have the odd stuff because they too have to economize space. And of course, a sharing circle just means that you personally don’t have to keep all the things, but all the things still have to be kept by the circle somewhere.

I do not like the idea of buying something more than once (multiple rounds of packaging, shipping, driving around to find it, assembling… it’s all bad). I hardly like to buy it the first time. I’m, uh, cautious when it comes to buying stuff. I don’t like shopping. OK no, I hate shopping. I don’t like spending money, and I would rather be doing just about anything than poking about a store looking for that one thing that I just discovered I needed. I try to follow the Scouting rule: Be prepared. I’m not a prepper by any standard, but I might fall into the MacGyver category. Or perhaps just a farmer. I have toolkits and supplies for all the activities that I can reasonably predict I’ll be doing. These might be unconventional, but they work. And I also have a few bins of “stuff that may come in handy”. To be honest these last are things that probably would go in the trash if I didn’t have much storage space. But since I do, I can hold on to them and see if they can’t be repurposed to meet some need down the road. Because I really loathe throwing stuff in the trash.

Now, I do advocate simplicity. I have an ongoing romance with tiny houses. I love the streamlined efficiency of everything in its own clever storage space. I am absolutely in awe of ship galleys. And I don’t like stuff just for the sake of stuff. Or just for the sake of fashion or someone else’s ideas of what is necessary. I don’t have a microwave because I don’t have a need. (Nor do I have the electric capacity in this old house, but that’s a different issue.) I don’t buy new clothing very often, hence the trail of repairs on older things. (I am now very good at minor mendings…) I don’t have much in the way of electronic gadgets, and what I do have mostly found its way to me without my input (or desire, in the case of things like the cell phone). But I do have bins of buttons and a large box of thread. I have canning jars and a rather splendid collection of knives for all purposes. I have well-stocked linen cabinets for bath, bedroom and kitchen. I have well-stocked tool boxes and an assortment of screws and nails likely sufficient to build a brand new home. And of course, I have a wall of garden tools, some of which only see use for a few days out of the year. But they are essential and irreplaceable on those days!

So I’m not saying we need to have huge spaces filled with things we only may use, and actual trash ought to be dealt with accordingly. No hoarding! (Though you might also think hard about acquiring trash…) But I am saying that we probably need to have enough space to warehouse quite a lot of stuff that we don’t need every month, or even every year. When you need that set of hex keys, it’ll be on a rainy Sunday afternoon and the sofa leg that was somewhat wobbly will suddenly collapse when the wet definitely-not-a-lap-dog Great Pyrenees bounds up for some aggressive cuddling. Or… that might just be in my house… but you get the idea. It’s a whole lot easier to be prepared for the predictable things and be ready to improvise on the mildly unexpected. If you live in the boonies (or even in any of the people warehouse neighborhoods, urban stuff deserts and McMansion gated communities alike — not a lot of utility or comfort in those cavernous status signals) it’s not unreasonable to anticipate a few black swans and make contingency plans. And for all that you’re going to need to stock stuff that you don’t need every day.

It’s a quest for balance. Balance for each of us. You may never need enormous knitting needles or a cello. I don’t ever intend to acquire a dishwasher or much in the way of sporting equipment. You balance space — budgetary and physical space — for your interests and priorities with space for general inventory of things that you will need that might not be in that special list. (Plumbing tools… ugh…) You weight the scales toward utility even if it’s not an immediate use. Make a plan to meet most needs, expected and otherwise. (And yes, keeping mementos is a need.) Then, when things change, as they will, you weed out what is no longer useful — with the caveat that if you have space, you keep more of the stuff peculiar to you so as to limit trash out there in the landfill. (Presumably you’ll keep it from decomposing in your attic also…)

Now, why am I talking about this right now? Why do I think this is important? Well, because there are several trends that are changing how we supply our lives, and none of them are in accord with simplicity-as-a-style. Kondo style is a rather brittle approach to meeting your needs. Dependent on just-in-time shipping and a constant flow of stuff. Off-loading much of the care work on others. Not maintaining even a cursory supply of resources to meet emergency needs. What happens when the power goes out in a Kondo home? Or when “toilet paper for sale” is suddenly not a thing? Or when two feet of snow plops down on your town and all deliveries are stopped? Or when the sofa collapses under too much dog? I suppose the Kondo-ites wouldn’t have a Great Pyrenees just on principle… And I don’t even know what they do if they have children. My thinking is they avoid that imbroglio even more so than huge slobbery dogs.

We are in the early stages of collapse. There is no reason to expect that any of the things we used to take for granted will magically reappear in the coming years. It’s not just the pandemic. None of it was working too well before this health disaster struck, and there is no slack in the system to make up for several years of falling even further into a hole. Or rather, many holes. It’s not one problem. It’s everything. So we’re going to have to change our ideas on home-making accordingly. 

For starters, if you really have your heart set on something happening that you can’t do from source to finish on your own, then you probably want to get going on that now. It’s only going to get harder to get stuff and labor. If you want to convert the garage into a mother-in-law suite, better be putting up the drywall (and insulation!) this summer. If you want a garden, best start building and planting the infrastructure and acquiring the tools now. If you want to stock a good craft closet or a chest of basic art supplies or a shelf of rainy day fun stuff for the kiddos, you probably want to make those purchases soon. If you have solar panels or wind turbines as a future energy-source goal, you will need to move that up and make it happen as soon as you can. We’ve passed peak stuff. For the rest of your life it will be harder and harder to acquire things.

Similarly, if you already have stuff-intensive hobbies you probably need to learn how to make and maintain that stuff yourself — or at least source it locally. And many things are just not going to be things. For example, anything that requires a good deal of continuous energy or regionally rare resources is probably a non-starter.

Of course, if you own a home, you’re going to have to learn how to maintain it — and then provision yourself accordingly. This means acquiring and keeping tools and supplies that you may not need immediately as well as whatever you use regularly. You need the quotidian stuff like screwdrivers and good cookware, but you also need a reasonable supply of things that will come in handy in reasonably expected, if infrequent, circumstances. When you need the thing it’s too late to go get it. Which really always has been true. We just forgot that with our starry-eyed admiration for things like 3D printing and drone delivery and Grub Hub. Which, let’s be honest, never did work out as well as advertised for most people or places or things.

Simplicity as a style is not simple living. It requires enormous complexity in manufacturing and delivery and disposal chains. Simple living, by comparison, is doing for yourself and limiting your wants. You don’t have to go full Paleo — which, in any case, is also not a thing. To live simply, simply choose what you most love. Don’t follow fashion; follow your heart. Do what you want, but do it yourself to the extent that you are able. If you want to learn to play the piano, then make room for that in your life. If you want an art studio, then build it. If you love to cook, then make a home that will help you make great food. (This, by the way, meets more than one need…)

And that leads me to my final point. Our houses are not homes these days. They are warehouses for bodies. Oh, some are very expensive warehouses… but not many needs are met in the average suburban house. Who has a root cellar? Or a jelly cabinet? Who makes their own clothes? Or table linens? How many people even use cloth napkins? How many of those alarmingly manicured landscapes contain fruit trees or vegetable gardens or even a small patch of herbs for tea? 

One of the biggest projects that we need to be working on Right Now as a society is redesigning our spaces so that we can meet needs and learning the skills and acquiring the tools to do that work. The end of the global economy means that we need to have the systems in place to replace that economy now. We can’t wait for something critical to completely fail and then maybe get around to addressing the problem. Imagine a world in which Bangladesh is totally flattened by a typhoon and stops producing and shipping all your clothing. Never mind sewing things together. Do you know anyone with a loom to make fabric? Do you know how to source the fiber? Do you even know what it is?

I’m not saying everyone needs to make room for a spinning wheel and a loom in their lives… but… that was sort of standard equipment in every home before this irruption of oil-fueled industry. At a minimum, these things are going to have to be a lot more common, accessible and in service in most of the neighborhoods of the world.

And there are going to have to be far more linen cupboards, tool chests, supply closets, cold cellars, and attics filled with potentially useful stuff (as well as 5th grade science fair projects) than simplicity-as-a-style will ever allow. 

©Elizabeth Anker 2022