On Simplicity

May 18, 2008

Hey! I Moved!

Filed under: Blogging — Serendipity @ 9:36 pm

I’m packing my bags from the trial WordPress.com account and movin’ on up! I’m officially at OnSimplicity.net, so please change any bookmarks or feeds you may have saved. I’ve fallen in love with blogging and look forward to meeting even more great new people in the blogging world.

Thanks to everyone who’s stopped by or left a comment–you’ve been a huge part of my inspiration for writing!


Stop and See the Cherry Tree

Filed under: Simplicity in Theory — Serendipity @ 5:00 am
Tags: , ,

It’s amazing how some things can stop us in our tracks.  These rarities can snap us back to reality or allow us dream for a short while. Anything that’s out of the ordinary can have this effect.  For me, that “thing” is the cherry tree in the backyard.

The cherry tree blooms for a very short period, often just a matter of weeks.  While it blooms, it’s a riot of beautiful color.  Once the blooms fall off, the tree looks like any other.  So, when that tree blooms, I know I’d better stop and take notice or risk missing out for the next 11 months.

The limited beauty of the cherry truly forces me to stop whatever I’m doing each time I pass by. Just stop. Take a good look, appreciate its beauty, and ponder how soon it will all be over.  It’s a bittersweet moment that has a way of putting other things in perspective.  Troubles, like these blooms, will soon pass and be forgotten.  Good times also are precious, and must be enjoyed while they last.

The cherry out back is also an incredible way to mark the time.  In the daily rush, it’s easy to go from December to May without blinking.  But with each spring, that precious cherry forces me to acknowledge another year gone by in a very organic way.  It’s a subtle warning: spring is here, it’s time to stop and enjoy it.  And I do.

May 17, 2008

Two Ways to Understand Enjoyment

Filed under: Simple Living — Serendipity @ 5:00 am
Tags: , ,

Part of living simply is being able to truly enjoy things.  Without sincere enjoyment, you can never be satiated, and you’ll likely want more. And more. And more.  One of the greatest lessons in enjoyment is one I’ve learned from my husband, and it involves chocolate.

Method #1:The Nibble Savor

Now, I’m the kind of woman who loves to spread out the enjoyment. I want it to last as long as humanly possible. So I nibble. And I savor.  If I get a chocolate bar, I’ll take the tiniest bites possible and roll each little bit over my tongue to fully experience it.  This process takes a long time and helps me to enjoy things mentally as well as on a sensory level.

Method #2: The Shovel

My better half is a shoveler. If given a chocolate bar, he’ll do his absolute best to get all of it in his mouth at once.  A look of bliss crosses his face, and in a flash, the chocolate’s gone.

Trying the Shovel Method of Pleasure

This behavior used to drive me crazy. “We’re trying to be frugal and stretch things out, hon,” I’d say. “Why don’t you take smaller bites and take the time to really enjoy treats?”  His response?  “I enjoy it most when my mouth is absolutely full of it and it takes over all my senses.”

I still didn’t get it.  Finally, I tried it.  Hey, we had a lot of Easter clearance candy given to us, so what could it hurt to “waste” a few items, right?  So I shoveled.  He gave me a shout of approval, a huge smile, and I thoroughly enjoyed the moment.  It felt good to be so reckless with a rare treat.

Experience Abundance

In our efforts to be frugal, sometimes we try too hard to eke enjoyment out of well, anything.  Once in a while, it can feel great to just shovel. You can shovel food, drink, parties, social occasions, books, fun projects, your favorite shows on DVD—lots of things.  In the shovel moment, you’re giving yourself over completely to pleasure—there’s no saving it, or measuring it, or worrying about when it will be gone.  In this sense, an occasional shovel is a great way to feel like you’re surrounded by abundance. 

The next time you’re feeling deprived (or you’d simple like a moment of bliss), try the shovel method.  No counting, measuring, or thinking: just pure sensory overload.  It makes you feel like a kid who’s getting an indulgent wish, and isn’t that the richest feeling of all?

May 16, 2008

The True Key to Lifelong Happiness Is… Country Music?

Filed under: Happiness,Simple Living — Serendipity @ 5:00 am
Tags: , ,

Country music: it’s much maligned, constantly stereotyped, and it’s the secret to true contentment. Say what? How can cheesy music that’s only about heartbreak and lost love (and dogs) make you anything but miserable? Read on for the full scoop.

It’s well-documented that music has deep, resonating effects on the human psyche. In fact, “the mood of a piece of music tends to induce the same mood in the listener,” according to a study by Lewis, Dember, Schefft and Radenhausen (Curr. Psychol.: Devel., Learn., Person., Social., 14, 29-41.). In addition, each genre of music conjures different feelings for each of us. While these will vary for all people, the underlying lyrical themes of different genres play as much a role as personal taste in this.

I’m going to seriously generalize here, but R&B focuses on themes of love and sexuality, hip-hop focuses on a glamorous lifestyle and street life, pop’s emphasis is on love and heartbreak, and rock lyrics cover everything from disillusionment and alienation to love and loss. So what’s the focus of country music? Being happy with what you have, imperfections and all.

Consider the following lyrics:

“Real love and real life doesn’t have to be perfect/…Love can be rough around the edges, tattered at the seams/Honey if it’s good enough for you, it’s good enough for me”

“Life’s a dance; you learn as you go/Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow/Don’t worry about what you don’t know/Life’s a dance; you learn as you go”

“I never had a dollar that could buy me what I’m feelin’/But I’m feelin’ ’bout as good as I can be”

“When the party’s over and the glitter starts to fade/It’s all about your piece of mind at the end of every day… /It’s only the simple things I believe that matter most in life/I’m more than satisfied, all that I have is all I need”

“I got no money in my pockets/I got a hole in my jeans/I had a job and I lost it/But it won’t get to me… I got the one I love beside me/My troubles behind me/I’m alive and I’m free/Who wouldn’t wanna be me?”

“I’ve got supper in the oven, a good woman’s lovin and one more day to be my little kids’ dad/Lord knows I’m a lucky man”

I could go on for quite some time, since the list is gigantic and ever-growing. The common denominator is the sense of being happy with and grateful for what you have. Seriously, modern country (unlike old school, traditional country which is also awesome in very different ways) is very much about dreaming big dreams while appreciating every moment in the meantime. And it can be quite affecting, too.

When you listen to country music on a regular basis, you’re surrounding yourself with the message that not quite enough is plenty and that time-weathered, unglamorous love is beautiful. Listen long enough–even just in the background–and those messages can really start to sink in. I know it happened for me a few years ago. I love *lots* of genres, but tend to cycle through one main one regularly that will account for about 75% of what I listen to. When that cycle finally went back to country after years of R&B, alternative rock and pop, it clicked. And my level of contentment rose when I turned on the music.

So, why not take control of the messages you’re hearing in the music as an experiment? If we don’t want our values to be shaped by TV and movies, then the music we hear deserves a second consideration as well. Who knows? You just may find yourself feeling like it’s okay to be just who you are, right now in this moment.

If you’re interested in checking out some of country’s best feel-good songs, try the following list out for starters:

  1. No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems: Kenny Chesney
  2. My Front Porch Looking In: Lonestar
  3. Perfect: Sara Evans
  4. Another Day in Paradise: Phil Vassar
  5. Who Wouldn’t Want to Be Me: Keith Urban
  6. Perfect Love: Trisha Yearwood
  7. Life’s a Dance: John Michael Montgomery
  8. Ain’t No Crime: Joe Nichols
  9. I Feel Lucky: Mary Chapin Carpenter
  10. Isn’t That Everything: Danielle Peck

May 15, 2008

Am I Just Faking It?

In reading other blogs, I come across quite a few items that make me question whether I’m truly a simplifier or not. After all, Xin Lu at Wise Bread, in a great post on living in small spaces, is willing to forgo a sectional for a beanbag. I, on the other hand, am not willing to ditch my sofa for a beanbag at this point. Am I just providing lip service to the idea of simplicity? After all, if you’ve read a few posts here, you know that I love clothing, I live in a big house, will probably never get rid of my television (dude, no MXC?), and so on… Does this mean I’m just faking it?

What Simplicity Means to Me

When it comes down to it, I don’t think I’m just faking it. This isn’t just a cosmetic choice for me. In my own life, simplicity isn’t a race to the bottom to see who can live with less. It’s about making conscious choices, being thoughtful in what I bring into my home and into the world, and focusing on relationships and experiences instead of stuff.

How do I accomplish this? What do I focus on? Here are my top priorities:

Not buying crap. I do a pretty damn good job of not buying things “just because.” Things I buy aren’t just bargains, they’re things that either promote health, bring me or someone else joy, or are really going to be useful.

Keeping media to a minimum. I don’t eschew television, but I also don’t watch that much of it. I stay away from sensationalistic news and gossip. For wimpy news, I stick to headlines instead of reading fluffy article after article after article.

Keeping my personal spaces clean and minimalist. I can breathe in a clean home. I can create. I can dream. I’d prefer an empty room in a beautiful color than a fully furnished room full of useless accessories. It still comes down to pure aesthetics, but it’s also about feeling like things have purpose.

Time commitments and lifestyle. I try to keep my time as my own to give myself freedom and peace of mind. With a job that’s essentially a community service, I can feel good keeping a good portion of my time off to myself to spend with family and friends.

Is Champagne Ever Simple?

I’ll agree–I’m not the traditional voluntary simplicist. While I do have a persistent and weird desire to be a survivalist, I always picture celebrating the first successful potato crop with a champagne toast. (I know.) However, simplicity isn’t just about cutting stuff out of your life. It’s about stripping life down to the bare essentials, throwing out all assumptions, and rebuilding the world around you to fit the dream you have, not the one you’re told to want or raised to believe in. After all, life should be rich. It just doesn’t have to be rich in money, or stuff, or accolades.

Big, Fat Faker

The verdict? I am a faker. A big one. Because in my eyes, simplicity is about having as much as possible. As much time as possible. As much love as possible. As much joy as possible. As much fun as possible. As much honesty as possible. As much thoughtfulness as possible. As much freedom as possible. I don’t want just a little, just enough to get by. No, I want a ton! Perhaps I should look into the availability of “onabundance”….

May 14, 2008

Quick and Dirty Guest Cleanup

Filed under: House & Home,Quick & Dirty — Serendipity @ 5:00 am
Tags: , , ,

You just found out that company is coming tonight. The house is less than perfect and you’ve got limited time. How should you clean to get the most bang for your limited cleaning minutes? Check out the following Quick & Dirty guide:

1. Hit the toilets. Sure they’re gross, but that’s kind of the point. Even if your house is immaculate, if a guest has to use a dirty toilet, they’re going to remember your house as filthy. It may be unfair, but it’s accurate. So scrub the interior and wipe down all exterior surfaces, especially the underside of the lid. The good part about cleaning the toilet(s)? It’s pretty fast.

2. Light a scented candle in the rooms you’ll be using. By the time you’re done, the fragrance should have time to permeate the room and welcome guests. Easy alternative: open the windows to air things out.

3. Pick up out-of-place clutter. Grab a laundry basket and throw in anything that’s in the wrong place, like toys, shoes, projects, blankets, dog bones, laundry, books, etc. If you’ve got time, return the items to the right place. If not, just hide the basket and put it all back at a later time. Just getting “stuff” off the floor and surfaces can make a huge difference in how clean your house feels.

4. Clear kitchen surfaces. Put the dishes in the dishwasher (or sink), wipe down the surfaces, and get any stray items off counter surfaces. If you’d like it to look great, put away the things that belong on the counter as well, like the toaster, cannisters, or coffee maker. It may be cheating, since those items are going right back on the counter as soon the guests are gone, but it sure makes room look clean without deep cleaning.

5. Dust obvious surfaces with a feather duster. This is not about nooks and crannies. This about major surfaces that guests might touch, like dining room tables, end tables, and shelves at hand and eye level. Feather dusters won’t get rid of the dust, but they’ll get it off the surface quickly.

6. Fluff and arrange sofa pillows.

7. Make the bed, if this is an area guests will see. If not, close your bedroom door and call it even.

8. Clean any urgent floor surfaces, if necessary. If the floor looks “clean enough,” don’t give it a second thought.

You’re done! Relax, pour yourself a glass of wine or tea and kick your feet up. The bottom line: Cleaning for guests is common courtesy that shows respect, but trying to make them think you live in a magazine ad is a disservice to everyone. Now is not the time for perfection; your guests will have more fun if you’re relaxed, so give yourself a break. Also, remember that friends and family don’t expect perfection, and may even get a kick out of seeing how you really live.

May 13, 2008

Simplicity Does Not Mean Living Like a Hippie

Filed under: Simplicity in Theory — Serendipity @ 5:00 am

I hate the word hippie. (Hippies themselves I like). People who don’t have green values tend to throw the word out to negate any point you might be trying to convey. It’s similar to the word “prejudiced” in that once it’s thrown out there, there are few productive ways to continue to the dialogue without having it turn into a lecture.

The word in its current form is meant to conjure up images of people in peasant dresses, tie dye, and Birkenstocks. These cartoonish people are unwashed, unrealistic, live in ridiculous communes, dance around yurts, and eat soy bean curd all day. Like all effective stereotypes, this image allows others to dismiss the group in question since they’re clearly living on a different plane that no person living in the “real world” of mortgages and insurance can be expected to emulate.

Do these stereotypical hippies even really exist? Well, having spend significant time in both Davis and Santa Cruz, California, I can confirm that they do. Do they consider themselves to be “hippies”? It depends on who you ask. Do they represent the larger movement of green living and voluntary simplicity? Not so much.

If you studied the majority of people who considered themselves to be living a life of “voluntary simplicity,” I imagine that they’d look surprisingly like everybody else. I know that I don’t fit the “simple” stereotype. I love big sunglasses and pretending to be glamorous. I dream of exotic vacations and good liquor. I like to spoil my dog. I long for a home that’s impressive and elegant (though I settle for “not ugly” and “relatively clean”).

Does this mean I’m not a true simplifier? Well, that’s another topic altogether. What it does mean is that living simply isn’t about cutting yourself off from mainstream values and desires–it’s just about focusing on the ones that you actually care about while letting the others fade into the distance. If that means I need to find a communal yurt to dance around, that’s fine–just let me know where to ship my shoe collection ahead of time.

May 12, 2008

Create a Mail Center

Filed under: Uncategorized — Serendipity @ 5:00 am

Mail clutter is the worst. It requires decision making, multiple party approval, extra actions, and additional filing and shredding. Plus, it can be vitally important and deadline-oriented; you can’t just shove it in a drawer and forget it. (Not if you want your power to stay turned on, at least.) In short, mail clutter sucks.

However, that’s exactly why it’s important to tackle. Nearly all productivity guides recommend touching each piece of incoming paper just once. The thinking is that you’re not going to be any more brilliant and decisive the next five times you pick up a paper, so you may as well take care of it now and get it out of the way.

I don’t actually agree with the touch-it-once rule, since it doesn’t always work in a two or more person household. Also, I often need to do some extra research before deciding on some things, so snap decisions aren’t always possible. So, the next best thing for me becomes a mail center. In a mail center, you’ve got a place to keep track of what’s new, what’s waiting, and what needs to be dealt with. In my house, we use a plastic filing tray with about four different levels. They’re not especially attractive, but quite affordable (maybe $10 or so at office supply stores).

When the mail comes in, take a moment to separate it into piles. One pile is to recycle, one is to shred, one is to take action, another is to file. Only keep envelopes that hold multiple items that need to stay together (ie a bill and a return envelope); otherwise shred the envelopes since they’re just taking up space. You can do this part of the process anywhere that’s convenient. The next step is the critical one: after getting rid of the junk, take everything else to your mail center.

Shred any sensitive info, then place the two other piles (Take Action and File) in your filing tray (or whatever you’re using). I like to make sure that the bills stick out so they’re obvious and noticeable. From here, you’ve got two options: handle everything now or batch it for later. If you batch it (which I do), create a standing date to handle it, like every Saturday morning or Thursday evening. Either way, it’s a good idea to keep the following items nearby: pens, envelopes, a calculator, a calendar, and stamps. With these things within reach, you should be able to handle any outgoing mail with no excuses.

Some people might prefer to have the mail center also be the initial processing center, and this can be a great way to do things. I actually prefer to keep them in two separate areas, since it gives me an incentive to get rid of as much junk as possible before cluttering up my mail center with it. It also keeps the pile of correspondence to deal with more manageable and less intimidating.

Then, each day make a cruise through the house for any stray paperwork. Grab any post-its that need to be placed somewhere, any receipts that need to be saved or shredded, any paystubs or work items, etc. Sort it and stick it in your mail center. It’s amazing how good it can feel to have all your paperwork in one place. I’d also recommend keeping a filing cabinet nearby so that your “To File” pile never gets too huge. For most of us who aren’t GTDing yet, a mail center can be a big efficiency booster without requiring a huge commitment or process.

May 10, 2008

Creating a Reading Inspiration Wall

Filed under: House & Home — Serendipity @ 5:00 am

I’ve admitted before to being a victim of raging BookLust. I’ve always been a reader, the kind of person who brings gigantic reinforced tote bags to library book sales. But having books and reading books are really two different animals. There are books I’ve had for over a decade that I haven’t read, don’t plan on reading, but refuse to get rid of because, you know, someday I might get the urge to try it.

The problem that goes along with BookLust is that it grows a fearful, disgusting, downright terrifying monster: the “to-read” pile. This pile starts off small and friendly, like a good friend who always has a perfect suggestion for your next read. Finished The Lovely Bones? Dive right into Possession–it’s the top one on the pile. Thanks, To-Read Pile–you just saved me from having to slog through the boxes of books in the closet or trekking to the library.

But then, something happens. The pile grows. And it gets greedy for your time. It breeds new baby books that magically turn into 1,000 page epics. (I’m talking to you, Lonesome Dove.) It starts to threaten you. “Read me. Read me now. Read faster. Read longer. Aren’t you done yet? Hurry up!” **If you keep any Stephen King in the Pile, it may even start swinging an axe or dangerously sharpened bookmark at you.** The pile calls out during your free until you can barely look at without turning red and storming out of the room in a guilty rush.

This is no way to enjoy a book. So, I ditched my reading pile and created an inspiration wall. It could in a closet or on the floor. Mine happens to be the bookcase in the spare bedroom, so I only see it when I make the effort to go in there. To create the inspiration wall, I go through my total collection and pick out books that I’m really excited to read. I also pick out some books that I just adore. I pick out some books that I learned interesting things from. I mix ’em all up like a literary stew and place them on the shelves.

Personally, I like to make the stacks look nice and artful. I like to leave a lot of empty space. (The full shelves would be just as bad as the dreaded Pile!) I like to make sure that the genres are all mixed up so that I don’t start ignoring one part and losing the gem in the middle.

Whenever I need something new to read and I don’t have a new title in mind, I visit the inspiration wall. There are lots of choices, but no pressure to pick a certain title. Even if something new doesn’t catch my eye, I can find a favorite to reread. Just sitting and looking at the bookcase fills me with a sense of excitement and peace.

To keep the system working, I rotate books in and out, usually when I get a new load of books from a book sale. Consider it merchandising for yourself. If interesting, attractive layouts can get retail stores to make you buy stuff, why not use the same techniques to keep you interested in the stuff you already have?

May 9, 2008

Can a Bigger House Be a Simpler House?

Filed under: House & Home — Serendipity @ 5:00 am

The conventional wisdom says that those trying to simplify should consider downsizing to a smaller house. The reasons are simple and logical:

  • Fewer rooms equals fewer rooms to furnish and less stuff to buy
  • Less square footage to clean
  • More togetherness

I don’t disagree with these points. But as in most areas, there are arguments on the other side that can be equally compelling. To be truthful, I live in a home that, it’s fair to say, is bigger than two people need. I didn’t choose it; I married into it. (Personally, I’d select a smaller house than we currently live in.) However, it certainly colors my thinking on this issue and has made me question the conventional wisdom that smaller=simpler.

Bigger Houses Allow Clearer Purposes

Having all those extra rooms means that each room can have a single purpose. While unitasking is often (and often rightfully) vilified when it comes to stuff, it can be beneficial in a home. Sleep researchers have been saying for years that bedrooms should be only be sleeping and sex. Not entertainment centers. Not media rooms. Not offices. You get the picture. Similarly, your office can be your office–not your office/workout room/play area. Having a unitasker office isn’t necessarily wasteful; in fact, it can be less distracting and boost productivity. Here are some rooms that benefit from being dedicated:

  • Bedroom: Better sleep is a gift to be treasured, so there’s much to say for not co-opting it to save space.
  • Kids’ Play Room: Leave it messy with no worries and don’t worry about tripping on toys all around the house. Safer and cleaner all-around.
  • Dining Room: With a dedicated dining room, the table is actually available for eating and sharing family time.
  • Home office: A unitasker office leaves less room for distractions.
  • Guest room: Guests can always feel comfortable staying without feeling like they’re in your way. Plus, it’s always ready for unexpected company. Family and friends can visit more often, for longer, without splashing out for an expensive hotel.

Other Cool Options for Single Purpose Rooms:

  • Home Gym: Who needs to pay for a membership or commute to a gym? Work out at home to stay healthy and keep medical bills down without having to turn the treadmill into a laundry rack on the weekends.
  • Media Room: These get made fun of a lot as part of the McMansion trend, but having a dedicated room to TV and movies means that you can contain media to just one part of your house, enjoy better lighting and acoustics, and also have a very good gauge of just how much time you spend in front of the TV. There’s something to be said for having a room that removes the television from the center of the house.
  • Sewing Room: Sewing is messy and requires that a decent amount of equipment be out to work easily (sewing machine, ironing board, cutting boards or space, etc.). Having a room that can be closed off can make you much more likely to keep out and use your equipment–which can a frugal boon.
  • Relaxation/Meditation Room: Nothing but a comfy chair, a CD player, some plants, and a gorgeous piece of art or two. Not hard to clean and almost impossible in a smaller home (though I do know that meditation is about the internal, not external surroundings). Hard to put a price on sanity.

So, What’s My Point?

My point is that simplicity is different for everybody, and there’s no one-size-fits-all prescription for homes. Since many McMansions take up the same spatial footprint as a home half their size, I don’t think that larger homes should immediately be categorized as wasteful, inefficient, or ridiculous. As long as people are thoughtful and deliberate in how they create their homes (ie, not filling them up with crap just because there’s room), both small and large homes can function equally well.

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