When we visited Costa Rica a couple of years back, we met some extraordinary people. An example was this Belgian couple who had a sailboat cruise enterprise. I was amazed to learn that they decided to leave their home country, sell all their posessions, buy a sailboat and literally make the boat their home. Yes, they cooked and slept on the boat. They were very particular on conservation – especially water in the tiny bathrooms. In fact, they had the sink faucets turned off and would open them only when someone visited the bathroom so they could impress upon the passengers how important it was to not waste water. They served snacks of fruit on real plates with silverware (that the lady later washed herself). I could not help but ask her why they decided to live on a boat. She explained that they had a great life – a house, cars, big TVs, good jobs. But they realized at some point that their life had become about keeping up with the Joneses and buying all of that stuff ended up leaving a big void. So they decided to uproot them selves and cruise around the world on their boat – earning what they needed by operating cruises. She also explained how they had to conserve food and water – they could only buy food that would not spoil over long periods as they could not shop frequently while on cruises between countries. That they had to be very careful with water and electricity – they pretty much went to bed at dusk and got up at dawn to save battery power. Their story blew me away – I couldn’t help but feel that although they had so many constraints – as I saw them – they were truly free – unfettered by all the “stuff” that most of us are slaves to.
While I certainly can’t imagine a lifestyle like this for myself and my family, their story left a lasting impression on me. This was simple living in action – they were pursuing their dream, earned only what they needed, consumed what they needed, were not mired in all kinds of stuff. That appeals to me a lot. Since then I have been trying to simplify my own life in a small way – by not being a slave to stuff.
How much stuff we had was driven home when we moved houses a year ago. I went insane getting every last thing out of the house – there were stray lego peices, hair accessories, buttons, pens, batteries, receipts, and such annoying random things in every room – although they were neatly contained in baskets. Not to mention unopened mail, purses, tons crap that the kids had gotten as return gifts at birthday parties. It was very unpleasant – especially because I did not have time to take care of all this during the move. I vowed then that I would not allow stuff to rule my life.
But it is a lot of work. I have two growing girls who need their wardrobes replenished every six months. They love nail polish, putting cute accessories in their hair, one of them is obsessed with jewelry, one loves shoes. THey have all of this stuff – a lot of which is gifted. If I’m not careful (or anal) their hair clips and what-not will appear in the food we eat. I have to work on keeping the stuff contained every day.
Another source of stuff is all the work they bring from school. I quickly realized that it was going to be nightmare to keep all the stuff they got home. So I ruthlessly purged – starting with my own stuff. I threw all my Ph. D. scholarly notebooks – yes. I had not looked at them in years and it was unlikely I would ever look at them again – angular momentum of electrons – really? I sat with my daughter, gacve her a folder and asked her to fill it – everything else was going to tossed. She agreed. We use that one folder year after year. I framed a fraction of her art and tossed the rest.
And then, there were the toys. I had a toy chest for my older one – and realized it ended up a useless chaotic jumble most days. Then I went and got plastic boxes to hold the little stuff. After I filled six of these, I decided to stop buying toys. The kids have more fun cutting paper, playing in the yard, riding their bikes, fighting with each other, banging the piano etc. than with a million pieces of junk anyways.
I used to like shopping once – during fits of organizing all the stuff I had, I had accumulated a handsome number of bins and baskets. I recently realized that having a bunch of cute baskets was only pushing the junk under the carpet – or in the basket. As I continue my mission of purging my house of junk, I am accumulating empty baskets. I am getting immense satisfaction from seeing empty baskets – soon I’ll be purging my home of baskets and bins.
I am still chained by my house, but I am glad I have grown to love it. Getting rid of a lot of stuff has been cathartic and I have come a long way. We moved in to what seemed then a compromise house – a bathroom was too small, a bedroom was more like a closet, the living area was disproportionately too big, not enough storage. The first thing we talked about was extending the bedrooms, installing a bunch of cabinets in the garage. After meeting the couple who had made a boat their home, I felt ridiculous about being dissatisfied about the small bathroom and bedroom. I now realize that I was prey to the American supersize, super consumer culture. Now we have decided to not make our home supersize by expanding – my daughter loves her tiny room too much anyways. We decided not to install cabinets in the garage just yet so as not to store more junk.