My life is blessed. I am in the happy position not only of being married to the nicest man in the world, but in having two extraordinarily nice men as our lodgers.
They are kind and thoughtful, quiet and friendly, responsible and pleasant. What a fab household.
But there is a secret to house-calming nobody has taught them, my mother’s powerful secret of a successful life: ‘The trick is to both maintain and progress; if you can do that, you’ve got it sussed’.
Living simply feels like total luxury. Buying very little and mostly second-hand on ebay, living small and frugal, occupying a small footprint, with almost nothing to lug about, trip over, lose, dust, or put away, is more peaceful and liberating than I can describe. The less you have and the less you need, the easier and cheaper everything gets; and the more time there is to read books in the sunshine, write your own, or even (if feeling virtuous) do something helpful for somebody else.
But knowing how to maintain and progress is very important for living simply. You have to keep an eye on things, because the norms of society have a momentum that amount to an initiative. Before you know it, your life gets hi-jacked by the agendas of others, your house fills up with things people give you or ask you to store for them, and your time is absorbed by supporting events it seemed mean to refuse. Life is a bush that grows, and the small tool-bag of simplicity ought to contain a pruning knife.
Part of maintaining and progressing is keeping things clean. This is how simplicity stays simple – by keeping up-to-date, doing things as you go along, not letting stuff build up.
I am not a house-proud person. There is a wad of grey fluff on the carpet around the place where the pipe of the landing radiator goes into the floor and hey, I let it sit there. I’m not sure what to do about it. I clean our windows once every year or two.
But the main bits of the floor, the table we eat from, the bathroom and the sink – these should be clean, because they get grungy very quick and make the place disgusting and give us germs. And the way to get all this done is by maintaining and progressing. The maintaining bit is keeping the work surfaces clean and free of clutter, shining the sink several times a week, vacuuming the carpets regularly. The progressing bit is that because then the place is basically clean, every now and then something can happen like the filthy old sitting room curtains get taken down and sent to the cleaners, or the houseplants that have outgrown their containers get potted on. The enemies of maintaining and progressing are a) clutter and b) Do-it-later.
Clutter makes you not feel like doing a task. If the counter is clear, it’s no hassle when you run a bowl of washing up water to take a wet cloth and give the work surface a wipe down. If you glance across the room and there is the toaster sitting in its pretty scattering of crumbs, and the breadboard also liberally scattered with crumbs and supporting the breadknife and a knife with butter and jam on it, and a used teabag sitting on a teaspoon and some kitchen roll and several bottles of oil that you know will have dripped and the butter dish and an assortment of drink bottles – what do you do? Nothing. Think: ‘Er…maybe not…’ Look away. Decide to do it later. And that’s how things don’t get done.
Our lovely lodgers are very tidy, clean men. I come downstairs in the morning and they will have washed up their breakfast things and left them to drain by the sink. When I put the now dry things away, I always check the spoons. We have a pot for used teabags by the kettle, and the teaspoons involved with that always get very tea-stained. I would like to give a small tutorial (I don’t propose to do this – something tells me it would not go down well) to my lovely men. I would like to say to them: ‘Look. This is a teaspoon. As you see, it is dirty. Here is the nice, clean washing up water. Here is the green scouring pad. Here I am, scouring the teaspoon, for about – ooh, ten seconds? Look. Now the teaspoon is clean. That is how you clean a teaspoon’.
Then I would lead my enthralled audience across to the work surface. I would say: ‘This is a work surface. Last night it was all clean: but oh, look! The Weetabix Fairy has been in the night, and now there are lots of little crumbs scattered on it. The Sugar Plum Fairy has been here too – can you see? There is a light dusting of granulated sugar all along the floor alongside the unit supporting the work surface. But, look! I wring out the dishcloth from the nice, clean washing up water that is still hot. I wipe down the counter (ten seconds), I wash out the cloth and wring it out again (ten seconds), I wipe the floor adjacent to the unit (ten seconds) and I wash out the cloth again and hang it up on the tap to dry (ten seconds). In less than one minute, while the kettle is boiling for my cup of tea, the work of the Weetabix Fairy and the Sugar Plum Fairy have been eradicated. Wasn’t that easy? Look – now everything is clean again: just like you found it when you came down for breakfast. This is very easy! You can do this too!’
I shall not offer this short tutorial, because I have a feeling it would provoke guilt, rage and resentment – and in my view the world is prettier without these things.
But those who choose to walk in the way of simplicity, and spend their days chilling out and having a groovy time, need to absorb the teaching of that tutorial: the way to freedom and effective living lies in learning how to maintain and progress.
About ten years ago it dawned on me that not only is life nicer and your home a more attractive place to be, but also less time is spent on washing up, if you do it as soon as you have cooked/eaten, rather than when there are no clean pots or cutlery left in the house, every surface is covered with crocks covered in dried-on food and you have nothing from which to eat your lunch. That was the beginning of a revolution. Since then I have enjoyed a calm, clean kitchen and actually spent less time on washing up.
K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Sweetheart): see it, think about it; and do it now.