If we weren’t minimalists before…

We are surely minimalists now. Call it an act of God. Our insurer did, followed by the words “you’re not covered.” On a day like today – one of the longest days of my life – it is really good to remember that stuff doesn’t matter, and community does. We lost a lot of stuff, but we are so rich in community. Our neighbors and friends have sheltered and fed us, checked on us, comforted us, cared for our dog, helped drain the water from our cars…and the list goes on. We are healthy, together, and safe, and fortunate to be so cared for. This was the last 36 hours:

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Our downstairs flooded, about half a foot deep. Our neighborhood creek became a 50 foot wide river. We lost Josh’s car, our home has to be gutted, repairs will take months. We are displaced. Our pets are displaced. And we worked so hard today. Then we threw a flood party, all gathered outside on our ruined furniture, drinking bourbon from tea cups. Half the homes in our neighborhood were flooded. The other half have been our ports in the storm. I am so profoundly grateful for our amazing neighbors and generous friends. We are all in good spirits – because we have each other, and that is so much more than enough.

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On volunteering

Today is Memorial Day, the one Monday I’m guaranteed to have off this summer. I thought about going swimming, or having a cookout, and spending the holiday relaxing. In the end, I decided to spend the day at Club Nova, the setting where I volunteer sometimes, which serves as a community for people with persistent and severe mental illness. Instead of spending the day by the pool, I spent it in a kitchen, serving umpteen burgers and hot dogs and baked beans and potato salad to the members of Club Nova. It was hot in the kitchen, so much so that the plastic food-service gloves stuck to my hands, and by the end of a couple of hours of serving meals, I was exhausted. It was the perfect way to spend Memorial Day.

Above is a picture of several Club Nova events and settings – on the far left is the whole community in front of the Club House; on the far right is the thrift store where I volunteer most often these days, helping to sort and price items and organize the window display. Today I mostly put food on plates, but that also gave me the chance to catch up with good friends, people who make me laugh and always make me feel welcome. In volunteering with Club Nova, I have come to be part of a wonderful community, to do meaningful work, and to build friendships with people I am so grateful to know. The nature of volunteering in such a setting is that my time there is often a pleasure, and it’s always fulfilling. I did an internship at Club Nova last summer, and then spent a semester of Fridays in the Clubhouse kitchen, helping to prepare and serve hot meals at a reasonable cost. I find that there’s almost nothing so fulfilling as feeding people. I’ve also had the chance to help put together a Legislative Breakfast, to paint a mural, to work in the thrift store that supports the Clubhouse, and to work on an outdoor beautification project when we planted a garden, painted the decks, and cleaned up the Clubhouse grounds. Above all, I’ve gotten to sit with people and learn about their lives, listen to their stories, and build friendships that mean a great deal to me.

Sometimes when life gets busy I think ‘I don’t have time to work at the clubhouse,’ but today reminded me of why it’s so important to make time. I want to enjoy my life, to have fun and relax, but more than any of that, I want to look back at the end of my life and know that I was loved and loved others, as part of a real community, and that I did some good in the world. My time at Club Nova makes me feel that when i come to the end of my life I really will be able to be confident in those things. I would encourage anyone reading this, if you haven’t already done so, to find a community where you can participate as a volunteer, build relationships with people, and do some good! Happy Memorial Day, everybody!

What minimalism isn’t

I read a lot of blogs, many of them about minimalism, sustainability, happiness and quality of life. These are things that I’m passionate about researching, learning about and writing about. That’s why I started a blog about them. Much of what I read on other people’s blogs is inspiring or thought provoking. Sometimes, though, I think we miss the point in our discussions of minimalism and downsizing. Today I read Tyler Tervooren’s post, Welcoming the Maximalist Movement, on his blog Advanced Riskology. Tyler writes,

“If you came over to my place for dinner, you might think I was a minimalist – I have very few material possessions…After thinking about it for awhile, I realized that I’m more of a maximalist with minimalist tendencies – I own little so that I may have a lot…

At the heart of this new maximalist movement is one simple ideal: more. I think people want more from life, not less. But, I also think that the two are not mutually exclusive. I reject the idea that the answer to a happy life is merely to simplify and do less. Instead, I propose that it’s to:

  • Do much more of what you love and much less of what you’d prefer to avoid.
  • Say more of what you truly feel and stop giving lip service to what you think people want to hear.
  • Have more of the things you value in your life and purge everything you don’t.
  • Be more of the person you want to be and less of the person you think others want you to be.
  • Create more beautiful things and destroy more ugly ones.”

What Tervooren describes (and renames maximalism), from my point of view, is the very heart of minimalism. There have been many comments on his blog entry, most of them positive. It seems that many people share his rejection of the doctrine of less. I don’t disagree with him, or with his ideas about what leads to better quality of life. I too am interested in doing more of what I love, having only things I want, and living with integrity. But I find all of those ideas to be in keeping with minimalism, an integral part of the minimalist equation. To me, the point of paring down, of having less stuff, was to have more time and resources for things like this:

and this

These are pictures from my winter vacation, which was lovely in  part because this year I put some thought into how I wanted to spend it, and made only commitments I wanted to keep. That left me more time for walks on the beach with the dog, and making cookies with a favorite little member of the family. That’s the point of minimalism, for me. Less stuff. More peanut butter cookies. More beach.

Perhaps, in parsing out a definition of minimalism, we first need to agree on what it isn’t:

Minimalism is not about having less stuff or fewer obligations. It’s about having only the stuff – and obligations, and experiences – you really want to have, or need to have, or find fulfilling. It’s not throwing away stuff just to have less of it. It’s an editing process, of thoughtful consideration, and it stays a process – you never have just the right amount of stuff, or experiences, or commitments. Not for long, anyway. Your needs will change, and so will your circumstances. The point of the process is to be able to adapt to the changes. For me, this “minify” initiative has been a way to improve my quality of life through reflection and a willingness to change.

Sustainability has also been at the heart of my own minimalist initiative. It’s why I went vegetarian, stopped buying new clothes and kept the heat off for as long as I could this winter. Those small sacrifices save me money, but more importantly, I am concerned with preserving our natural resources and preventing environmental degradation. That’s not minimalism per se, but for me, minimalism and sustainability are inextricably linked. To some extent, my efforts to live smaller are a value statement, reflective of my concerns about my own impact on the planet and the impact of our collective, societal choices. Even so, the pursuit of less in the name of sustainability has not made my life smaller, sadder, or less meaningful. It has made me infinitely more appreciative of things like clean water, fresh air, the things I do own and above all the community I have become a part of, comprised of others trying to live out the same values and ideals.

Tyler Tervooren is a part of that community, a blogger interested in many of the same ideas, just from a different angle. I think that he and I are pursuing the same goal, only calling it different names. He writes:

“Rather than exclude indiscriminately, focus your time, energy, and effort on more of the good things in life and ruthlessly exclude the bad. Get more of what you really want.”

That sounds like good advice to me.