Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Simplify, simplify, simplify!

Paolo Nutini--"Simple Things" (mp3)

I lived for the last 27 days in a college dorm. Admittedly, it was a very nice dorm--new, high-rise, centrally located in Chicago's Loop, maid service once a week, 4-bedroom quad with full kitchen and common living area. So, this isn't going to be about having to "rough it."

Instead, this is about living simply.

For that month, I had two pairs of shoes, 6 pairs of socks, two pairs of shorts, two pairs of pants, 5 pairs of underwear, 3 t-shirts, 5 polo shirts. I had a computer and an Ipod. I had a shelf of books. I had basic (for me) kitchen utensils and spices and condiments. And that's about it.

I rode the subway, instead of driving my car. Many places, I walked. I bought almost nothing during those 27 days that wasn't for immediate consumption or use.

I watched 1 hour of television during the 4 weeks.

And it was good.

Now, of course, I had a huge metropolis at my fingertips, with its myriad opportunities. Of course, I missed my family. I have no interest in becoming an aesthetic. I'm not advocating living alone as part of this simplicity. And I had roommates.

But what about the stuff? All of those things that fill three stories of a house and clutter a yard in Chattanooga? What about the grass and the grill, the tools and the gadgets, the mountains of laundry and bedding, the many cars in the driveway, the heirlooms and antiques, the books and the stacks of cooking magazines from the last 10 years? I did not miss any of them. What about the "might need" and the "should save," the "just requires a part" or the "hope to refinish one day?" What about the things from earlier lives that might be used for later lives? Nope, not a thought given to them. What about the attic and the utility room, the "junk drawer" and the closet or the other closet or the other closet all stuffed and stuffed with stuff? I felt free of all of it.

Henry David Thoreau is my patron saint of simplicity. He seemed to see everything in the simplest, Platonic terms. Government was clutter, laws were clutter, wars were clutter, and, at least during that stint down at Walden Pond, people and the lives they were leading were cluttered. Sometimes, Thoreau can be kind of annoying because his solutions seem too easy for application in the real world. It is Thoreau who reminds us that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." It is ourselves who pat ourselves on the back and like to think that we are luckily not part of that mass of men.

Back home, I am acutely aware of how much I am living in the world of too much. I have 6 guitars, but I only play one. There are cupboards in the kitchen that contain things that I have purchased, but they have been hidden from my view for so long that I have forgotten about them and even forgotten my plan for them. Having lived for several weeks on so few clothes, I stare into my closet at the rest of them and wonder what use I have for them.

Of course, all of this will change. A good Sunday at Target with the family and some new clothes for the school year and a book I might read and an electrical gadget that will allow me to plug even more things into the wall than I already do, and I'll be back to normal.

But, at present, there is still that nagging feeling that I've got it wrong, and, yes, that we've got it wrong, and that, in the simplistic spirit of Thoreau's Transcendentalist notions, it really wouldn't be very difficult to change at all.

Paolo Nutini is available at Itunes.


troutking said...

1. I felt this same way after my summer in Yellowstone last year, living mostly on nature's rhythms, watching no TV, never seeing anything like the clutter of Brainerd Road or Gunbarrel. Like you say, it didn't last long, but I think a little bit of it stuck with me: a tiny voice inside that whispers "too much." Sometimes I listen because, as Kramer says, "You gotta listen to the little man inside of you." Sometimes I don't because, as George says, "My little man is an idiot."

2. That's a really old picture you found of Pete Townsend.

George Dyer said...

This is the lifestyle we lived for 2 years in Hyde Park. 800 sq ft, 1 bedroom apartment. Sold the car, biked, walked or took public transit everywhere, used ZIPCAR to get out of town. Gotta admit it was tough at times with a 5 yr old, but we really got into the whole process of whittling down to only the things we needed to survive and enjoy our time there. Had to stop my runaway book-buying habit and pay a weekly visit to the library instead. We packed away all our dishes except for three plates, glasses, utensils and implemented a wash-as-you-go system. Got really serious about scanning in important papers and keeping only digital copies of everything. No new purchases unless absolutely necessary... I believe winter coats and ice skates were the only ones. This process forced us to focus our awareness and resources on experiences and less on the comforts and worries of possessions. The only downside to the downsizing was that our obsession for minimalism had many folks around us scratching their heads and I hate to say sometimes keeping a safe distance from us. It was worth it, though. We returned with the ability to take possessions much less seriously, and now can simply cut the dead weight when necessary to shift life back into balance, something most people seem to find nearly impossible.

The Kentuckian said...

Does this mean I should put Taco on EBay?

Randy said...

I'm amazed at how the accumulation of goods is an easily learned habit. My family makes very few impulse purchases. We don't have a garage and we frequently purge the basement of unnecessary items. Nonetheless, my 5 year old son, through simple observation, has learned the proper habits of accumulation. Whenever he builds a garage our of legos, or draws a picture of garage (very often for both), he insists that they be two-car garages so he can keep a car on one side, and his "junk" on the other side.