Saturday, 1 May 2021

730 things — Day 51 of 365

 Definition of terms. (mine — others may disagree)

Simplicity. A person espousing simplicity is someone who lays aside the pretensions of status and wealth. They choose what is ordinary, small and humble, close to the earth. Monks, nuns and hermits live in simplicity. St Francis of Assisi was the living icon of simplicity. It is sometimes called voluntary poverty, and it is beautiful. Poverty that is not chosen freely grinds people down. 

Minimalism. St Francis, like Jesus, was also a minimalist, but there is a distinction to be drawn between simplicity and minimalism. All monastics and hermits live in simplicity, but some of them acquire a heck of a lot of clobber in their domains. I have known people who lived very generous and unpretentious lives, focussed on faith and kindness, free of vanity and ambition, who I would say had their feet on the way of simplicity — but they were certainly no minimalists. Minimalism deliberately reduces levels of ownership of physical items (usually de-cluttering digitally as well) to — as the name implies — a minimal amount, and also monitors levels of commitment in terms of time and relationship. Minimalism aims to create calm and reduce complication (not complexity — nobody can do that, life is inherently complex). Minimalists, unlike (in general) people who live simply, often use charts and numbers to evaluate where they've reached — how many items in the wardrobe, how many things owned altogether, that sort of thing, as well as progress in terms of spiritual practice, career and relationship. Some minimalists are very chic and elegant sophisticated people; they are sometimes snobbish. So it is possible to be a minimalist and not have your feet on the path of simplicity just as one can live simply without being a minimalist. Many people got into minimalism because they are sensorily extremely sensitive, or are on the autistic spectrum, or live with neurological challenges to do with either stimuli or organisation — so many of them were either hoarders of living in overwhelm and confusion before, and chose minimalism as a method of calming the soul. It does do that.

Extreme minimalism or essentialism. These are the people who really go for broke in terms of limiting their possessions, often in order to achieve a specific goal. Increasing numbers of Western middle-class people are echoing the path of the digital nomad, for a variety of reasons — necessity (a marriage break-up resulting in poverty, redundancy, a young adult with insufficient resources to buy a home), or the desire to travel, or a preference not to be tied down. Extreme minimalists or essentialists live with the absolutely smallest number of possessions — so, no furniture usually. Most often they limit themselves to a rucksack (not a huge one, 35 or 40 litres). They sometimes have a place to call home, but often live in a hotel. They aren't usually people who have fallen on hard times but are very focused and talented individuals able to make a living from public speaking or life coaching or occupations that can be run online, like accountancy, magazine illustration or writing. The digital revolution has allowed writers to live as minimalists, and (as you will see) it therefore suited me very well as an occupation.

I started out on the path of simplicity, because I fell head over heels in love with the way of St Francis when I was fifteen. I later also encountered Gandhi and loved him too. I moved on to what you might call a kind of half-baked minimalism as a response to inescapable life circumstances. In my first marriage five children were born to us and we didn't have much money and I believed in staying home to raise my own kids myself. So we could only afford a small house, with a lodger to make ends meet. The way to make it work was not to own much — minimising possessions maximised the space. When that marriage ended I was a Methodist minister living in a spacious manse; but the way the marriage ended brought our entire family circumstances to a crashing halt — his work, my work, and our home. So the furniture I'd accumulated had to go. Our family was scattered into little dwellings we managed to secure, and then I married again. But I married a widower whose first wife had been his soulmate and he still had all her stuff in his home on the edge of a wood, where he was utterly rooted. So though he welcomed me, he could offer only two drawers and half a cupboard for my possessions, so I thought, "Fair enough," and moved in. When he unexpectedly died a couple of years later, having left that house to his son, it was very handy to be able to toss my kit into the back of a Nissan Micra and drive away.

Then I married a third time, but that involved leaving my work — so my income abruptly ceased — to travel three hours up country. So I took lodgers to give me something to live on while I thought what to do next. As my new husband at that time had plenty of possessions, having lodgers meant reducing my personal possessions to what would fit in an under-bed drawer. 

I settled into a couple of decades of full-time writing — and yes, writing Christian fiction is an excellent way of keeping a person firmly located in minimalistic simplicity. During that time we moved back down to the coast to live in the shared house where we are now. This stratagem got all the tribe out of rented accommodation into owner-occupied, which I regard as a good thing. I see the financial commitments of an ordinary person as dividing into two neat halves like a walnut — accommodation, and everything else. If you can nail the accommodation, everything else is flexible and minimalism makes it manageable, so I wanted to be sure they all had somewhere to live — albeit small or shared. By no means did I pay for everything, but sharing was what enabled me to help.

So in our present shared house I live in what's often called the box room — the small room above the vestibule just inside the front door. Being quite a spacious house, as box rooms go mine is roomy. Tony built me a wardrobe and a little set of shelves (tall and thin like a CD tower), and I have a chair. Tony also made me a bed. My room will literally accommodate a full length bed, but is too narrow to put the bed in place — because there's a moment when you bring it down from standing on end when it needs a couple of inches more than it needs in position; a couple of inches more than my room has. And a bed frame with two beds screwed on won't work either, because there's a moment when the ends aren't yet in place that you need a couple of inches for your screwdriver to screw in the screws — and that space isn't there. So for a while I slept on the floor, then I asked Tony to make me a bed base the height of a sofa (seat), composed of two frame units each half the length of a bed. So I could just lift each one down straight. And he did, and bingo! It worked. I do like to sleep up high. I like my bed to be as hard as a floor, but raised. 

So the path I have travelled has nudged me into minimalism as I went along, mainly by noticing that problems would go away for other people if I didn't own much. But it's also true that my own problems go away if I don't own much, so don't go thinking I'm particularly unselfish; just pragmatic, really. And the less I own, the fewer problems I have. 

I would really like to be an extreme minimalist / essentialist; that feels like my true north in terms of this particular journey. But I don't think that's actually likely to happen, because I have some things — the picture my prayer partner Margery painted, various things Tony made (my bed, my shelves, a little stool), some lovely artefacts my daughters have made me. I can't see how I would ever part from them. So I stick with minimalism. I couldn't get my possessions into a rucksack, it's true, but I could fit them into a the back of a car and relocate to a fairly small shed if the need arose. A surprising amount of stuff does creep in over time, but every now and then — as this year — I have a cull and take it back down to the floor.

So (are you still awake?) here is what I'm moving on today.

For my bed, as the frame is more functional than beautiful, I got a red valance sheet to go on the frame under the mattress and make a frill round the frame. I've had it there some years and it's annoyed me that entire time. It makes it harder to make the bed and hard to clean under it. The mattress gradually travels and takes the sheet with it, meaning it adds a pointless red frill while still exposing the frame. But I can't pull it back into position because it has a mattress on top weighing it down. Since the duvet overhangs the side of the bed anyway, it occurred to e this morning I don't need that valance sheet at all.

So here it is sitting in my laundry basket waiting to be washed and sent to the charity shop.

Then the other thing is indeed an emblem of how stuff creeps up on you. Some people in Hastings where I live started up in business selling Kombucha. If you bought above a certain monetary threshold they'd deliver it free, each time collecting (to re-use) the bottles from last week. Then two things happened — a) we stopped buying it because the sugar levels in Kombucha (while low in this particular brand) are a bit too high, and b) they changed their branding to use different bottles so didn't need back the ones we had. That was some months ago, but I still had the bottles, sitting in a little nook in the cupboard. So this morning I put them out in the kitchen bin ready to go for recycling when the lorry next comes by.

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