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15 Sep 2011 / Julie

epiphany. minimalist style.

After class today i had lunch at Ikea which is just down the road (how can you go wrong with roasted chicken and mashed potato lunch for only $1.99?) and before heading home i decided to wander through the showrooms to get some blood flowing. If you’ve never been to an Ikea before, i highly recommend it – it’s quite an experience (and, if i may, quite the people watching spot- say, from one of their comfy bedroom setups).

While walking through, you can usually find me snapping photos of design ideas for changing the house *yet again* and eventually, before I end up at the exit, I’ll have had the sudden “need” to purchase a small, usually cheap, organizational apparatus or *yet another* sheet set or kitchen item to make my house (and life) finally click. Today, however, i was already more than halfway through the showroom before i realized – not only had i absolutely no desire to buy anything, i suddenly saw the big picture and the whole key to the perfectly organized house and life.

You don’t need organizational tools, bins or schemas to help you organize if you just have less stuff.

I mean, my “epiphany” might be your “duh” moment, but this definitely was an “ah-ha” moment for me when the last few years suddenly just came together. Here’s how i think i finally ended up here:

I’m pretty sure it all started with high fructose corn syrup. Hang with me for a sec, this will all make sense soon. However I got on the HFCS kick, about 3-4 years ago i decided to take a stand against the rampant use of HFCS in everything and start reading labels and only buying things with sugar in them. Let me just tell you how annoyed i was to find HFCS in my cough medicine and my beloved childhood brand of apple sauce. Starting out, everything in my fridge with HFCS in it, got an X on it  and when it ran out, i’d look for an HFCS-free alternative- and let me tell you, that was not easy. Today, however, companies have gotten the memo and you can find plenty of “throwback,” “classic” or similarly branded items with sugar, like they used to have.

After that came the rest of my diet… I had read Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and it opened my eyes (again) to the eating local and more consciously concept that somehow, over the years, had gotten lost in my life. Around the same time, a friend of mine invited me to a screening of FRESH at a nearby church where local growers, raisers, and makers of food were set up and my whole life changed. I learned about CSA’s and since that very moment we’ve been completely ignoring the existence of the middle of the grocery store (if not the grocery store all together), buying meat only from happy grass fed cows* or happy roaming chickens, making sure our milk and eggs are from said happy animals and buying what we can at local farm stands and markets for the fruits and veggies. I’m still working on a source of cheese, yogurt, and other similar dairy products that meets my now serious requirements (but i’m pretty sure within the year i’ll be making them myself).

Somewhere along the line of the HFCS crusade, the last straw was that i could only find canned mushrooms that were grown in PA (40 miles north), shipped to China for processing and then shipped back for canning. And so began my moratorium on anything made in China. It had the added benefit of making me think i could do my part for the ”carbon crisis, continuing the local idea, and voting with my dollar as far as international trade regulations were concerned (hello lead paint). It didn’t take long to realize that everything we buy is made there and gave me a mental image of a land full of factories, instead of the beautiful China my aunt speaks of from the  70s. Regardless,it is possible to find things made elsewhere (or god forbid in the USA). You may have to look a little harder, pay a little more or simply go without, but i think it’s worth it.

Similarly, i started to bug my normally receptive parents about their use of paper plates and cups over their regular dishes, and their need for paper napkins and paper towels instead of reusable cloth ones (which we’d been using for a few years now). because of the environmental issue (one word: WALL-E). I’m happy to report that I finally won that battle a few weeks ago. My next goal with them is to switch them to biodegradable trash bags.

About two years ago, when we moved to our current place, we learned the county had a very aggressive recycling program that accepted essentially everything (seriously not kidding) without it needing to be rinsed, cleaned, or sorted AT ALL. I’ve always recycled but now we were tossing out a huge bin of recycling and only a tiny half-filled bag of trash each week. If we composted (it’s coming, i can tell), we’d have no trash at all.

So all this is going on in the food and environmental sphere of my life, and over in sphere B, i’m still fighting the seemingly never-ending battle with my stuff. It needs to be organized, cleaned, picked up, and purged CONSTANTLY and it seems that every spare moment i have (not many) includes a to do list that has “organize X” or “clean up Y” right at the top. But even when i did that, it never looked or felt like I had made a dent.

I constantly felt overwhelmed. My home office was a dumping ground and it was a constant battle of moving piles from open spot A to open spot B in order to move something else just to have space to do stuff. Instead of spending time on projects, work, or just doing nothing, i spent time trying to get a hold of the “stuff monster.” We live in plenty of room for two people, but i felt like i was being crowded out.

In an attempts to at least curb the incoming stuff, last Christmas I put serious limits on the gift giving. Gifts is what my dad does. It fills him with joy to buy things that he thinks you will enjoy – and even more joy when he sees you open it on Christmas morning. In fact, until last year when I started imposing those limits on Christmas  (just call me Scrooge), Christmas morning gift giving was an almost all-day affair, each of the three of us taking turns opening one item at a time. But all that stuff takes up space and i was at my mental limit. Dad did okay last year – he tried, he really did- but it was painful and I still ended up with stuff because no one knew how to change the tradition of an all-day gift opening fest when there seemed to be nothing to fill the space with. The boy and I were creative with our own Christmas, however, wrapping games we already owned and playing them after they were unwrapped. This year, i’ve put a COMPLETE MORATORIUM on stuff at Christmas at home. One gift each, if you must at all; high premium on experiences over things; homemade items are good. Things made of plastic, in China, or something that won’t last forever are verboten.

If you’re wondering if my stuff problem extends to the bedroom, it does. The bedroom closet, that is (sheesh, people). A tshirt and jeans girl (& no shoes if i can help it), i never understood or was taught the concept of an outfit. What Not To Wear intrigued me, but always left me mostly baffled when it came time to apply the theory. Mostly solo clothes shopping was basically hell for me, and i continued to buy pieces, instead of seeing the whole picture (which is funny because i’m really good at seeing the whole picture everywhere else in my life and work). This all leaves me with a closet bursting at the seams with things that maybe kinda go together, but not really. And regardless of the things i owned, I still basically wore the same few things. Enter Kendi Everyday. I’ve had Kendi in my rss reader for maybe a year now but only recently have really started to pay attention to her 30 in 30 project – 30 items to make 30 outfits in 30 days. Basically – forcing yourself to see your clothes in a different way, and make them do new things for you. I had the unique ability to wear a skirt and have it still look like my normal tee and jeans uniform- no extra finishing pieces, no accessories, nothing special – slap it on and you’re on your way. But in the last month or so i’ve seen more new combinations in my closet than i have ever. For example, I had no concept of just how different a whole outfit can look just by tucking in a shirt. Bless you, Kendi. (Outfit Mentor status also goes to my friend A whom i very much miss shopping with (especially now that i know what i’m doing.)

So where does this leave us? Well, enter two of the final pieces of the puzzle: 1) my complete abhorrence for my current commute and my intense desire to work closer to where i live / live closer to where i work at some point in the not-so-distant future and 2) my reading of The Feast Nearby (also, a blog). Dreams of living locally, biking around town, knowing my neighbors and canning my own chutneys and whatnot (because with all this local veggie buying, winter is going to suck), everything consolidated for me.

Somehow a life that was never about stuff, turned into one of not just stuff, but complacency and a disconnect from nature as i tried to find my way in the world. I bought into the completely ridiculous idea that if i dressed a certain way, bought into this new productivity practice, or purchased a new thing, something would click and it’d all be okay. But letting go (of expectations, material things, and completely bullshit ideas of the kind of person you have to be to do x, y, or z)… making careful and conscious choices about my life (and the stuff in it)… and following the bliss – naysayers be damned – is my true path now. And i can’t tell you how glad i am that i’ve found it, even if it seems to have taken forever.

So the journey has been long, but the destination isn’t yet here. I’ve been selling our stuff on ebay like mad, we’ve ditched our TV service (with the added benefit of confusing and annoying The Company and saving a lot of $), I’ve relearned the word “no” and we continue making good choices for ourselves – happy cows, sustainable building materials and being creative with what we’ve got and making what we don’t (if we must).

All this to say, with less stuff, you really can do (and be) more.

———-

* I can tell you with absolute certainty that there is a difference i can feel between meat from a happy cow versus an unhappy one (think the difference between open field and feed lot). i feel better after the meal, it’s easier to digest, and tastes completely different (read: better). My mom was skeptical but let me buy them a pound of “happy cow” (as it’s now come to be known in our houses, though i’d imagine that if the meat is in my procession at some point the cow was no longer happy). They kept it frozen for a while but finally cooked with it. Mom was astounded- she didn’t feel a heaviness and sloth that she usually does after eating beef and she noticed the difference later too as it didn’t make her stomach do flips during digestion. WIN!

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