Friday, March 15, 2013

When Less is Just Less

Image from slcrawford.

There is a lot of what I would call "neo-minimalist" talk swirling around these days, like this article  from the New York Times this past Sunday, or  this man's blog and books, and the work of these guys, with their lecture gigs and their oh-so-simple website, which includes a picture of just six shirts hanging defiantly in a closet above just two pair of shoes.  It's as though divesting oneself of the psychic and physical weight of possessions has become an industry in itself-- though a tight one, I guess, because, you know, Less is More.

It's something I've been thinking about a lot recently-- well kind of on and off my whole adult life, because for me, having money seems to be a cyclical thing.  We have less now, but I've had less before, and then had more again, so there is no reason to suspect that prosperity is not indeed, "just around the corner," as Herbert Hoover never actually said during the Great Depression of the last century.  

So I have to say, my reactions to the New York Times piece and some of the other minimalist ideas floating in mainstream intellectual space have been mixed, precisely because I understand this mini-movement as choices these individual minimalists are making.  That gives some important context we shouldn't ignore, because choosing to live with less once you have had more is a situation in which you might be happy to find yourself, but just struggling without stuff is an entirely different kettle of fish. 

Renouncing most material possessions and with them, the spirit of base materialism, is a positive action that can be seen as bold and brave, even when the move made by people who could, if they wanted to, pick up the thread of what they used to do, such as software development or real estate sales, and earn themselves back into a McMansion with a BMW parked in the driveway.  Less can be a learning experience and lead to real growth and change, as the NY Times essay and some of the other minimalist literature indicates.  Usually, these correspondents have made the minimalist choice in the name of that ethereal spectre, "work life balance," giving up not just stuff, but also the job that got them that stuff, as a way to gain some intangible that is more important.  And they find it.  But I think it is also important to remember that some people are just struggling to make ends meet, and they live with less because they simply can't have more.   This doesn't necessarily produce the same spiritual awakening, and indeed, can be pretty damned depressing. 

If we want to really put things into context, I have to disclose some of my own.  We've had one of our worst financial years ever, due mainly to the fact that I stopped working as a retail manager last April.   My unemployment and the reasons (some might say rationalizations) behind it, is a topic for another post, so I'll save it for now, but offer that there was an element of choice to our currently circumscribed (read, financially harrowing) life.  We have gained some valuable intangibles, but are we minimalists?  I'm not sure.  We have given things up, with mixed results. 

The main thing we gave up is child care, which took the lion's share of my paycheck.   Child-rearing is a totally DIY thing for us now, and that has been a good thing for the girls.  They have thrived this year, and have not gone through the bi-weekly cycle of colds and coughs that they did last year.  For me, this is the first year I've been a full time mom, and it has been delightful and challenging and super-fun and sometimes annoying.  Just like it is for every parent.  But the fact that the girls are happier and healthier is something I wouldn't easily give up, even though there are some weekend mornings that I just have to go out.  By myself.  It doesn't matter where. 

We no longer have cable TV.  Yes we watch far less-- just what we get with a set of new-fangled rabbit ears, so there is really no point in channel surfing-- all waves eventually crash on the network beaches, or on the too-welcoming shores of the evangelical channels.  On the plus side, I've read fourteen whole books since the first of the year, started the blog and an Etsy shop.  The girls are doing a lot more artwork, and Delia is learning to crochet.  But I'd still kind of like to find out what happened to Raylan Givens' jailed pappy on Justified, or sit and mindlessly watch TV BFFs Ina and Giada and  Nigella on the Food Network.  As Fiona put it, as the cable box was being sent away with the FedEx man, "I'm not sure this was such a good decision." Eventually, we'll join the 21st century and stream TV, but until then, we can manage, if somewhat grumpily, to watch less and do more.

We couldn't afford to furnish our apartment, so ninety-five percent of what we have was given to us by friends and family.  I realize almost every day that we have been really fortunate to acquire these things, so even though I've been heard to loudly and bitterly complain that our apartment resembles the BEFORE shots in the make-over stories in decorating magazines, I am happy when I look at the things in the apartment, knowing that everyone thought about us and gave them to us when we needed them. 

We don't have a car.  Unfortunately, the Phoenix metro area is not exactly a bastion of public transport.  We had the foresight to find an apartment close to bus routes because we knew it would be necessary, but it takes Mike 90 minutes each way to and from work, which would be about a half hour each way by car.  Remarkably though,  we're offered rides to school and work all the time.  Maybe it starts as curiosity about the car-less, but I like to think of it as a triumph of human spirit among my neighbors, especially the moms I hang with on the school pick-up scene. We are also close enough to be able to borrow a car from Mike's brother some time each month.  When we do use the car, we really appreciate it, especially the girls, who are clearly becoming conscious that living without a car is unusual, and perhaps, undesirable. 

Another thing I know about having less money is that it means that many things take more time and  planning.  Running errands without a car is much more time consuming, even with good public transport, but I do get more exercise that way. Buying fresh food to cook rather than more expensive prepared alternatives means more time in the kitchen and more foresight about having something to cook in the first place.  I know that, like the minimized TV watching, these things are good for us on several levels, but sometimes I'd really just like to order take-out at the end of a long day, take a quick ride to pick it up, and then eat it with my feet up in while I watch Guy Fieri visit a fine French restaurant some guy has built at the back of a bowling alley.

So what do these minimalist odes to simplicity really mean? I guess that has to go back to the context of why we have less.  Are we renouncing by choice?  Then, yes, there is beauty in not having to worry about maintaining a life with so many things around us. I really believe this, so I am always trying to reuse, recycle, and donate, because even though we struggle, we still seem to have excess sometimes and we have benefited from these actions by others.  Yet I also believe that this is a point I have been lucky to get to, because when I get cranky about having to cook, or not having anything to watch on TV, I can remember that I have made choices about how I wanted to spend my day, even though I never experienced the sort of surpluses the neo-minimalists have forsaken. 

Maybe the takeaway is that those of us who sometimes struggle with less should take comfort in the affirmations of those minimalists who have rejected the maximalist world: they've made it to the end of the rainbow, and the pot of gold ain't all it's cracked up to be.  Really though, I think most people would like a chance to learn that for themselves. 

I guess the one true statement I can make about living with less is that it is a mixed blessing.  I think the minimalist movement needs to acknowledge that, and not just because there are lots of people who never have enough to have the choose what they can give up.  I mean, who would take those high powered work-aholic jobs that get you so much stuff if living with less was an unalloyed delight?  For that matter, who would work in retail stores or collect garbage, or come out to snake your drain?  There is something to be said for stuff, just as there is something to be said for being able to manage, even flourish, without it. 
I'm just saying...

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