Simple living is complicated

Browsing through a stack of women’s magazines in a waiting room recently, I counted no less than half a dozen features outlining how to “banish clutter” or “simplify and organize” everything that’s muddled in my chaotic household.

One article suggested that dumping the contents of my junk drawers would enhance my self-esteem. Another promised I’d experience more “positive energy” in other areas of my life — if I’d spend a week purging my closets and drawers, and clearing the tabletops throughout my home. If only it were that simple, right?

DSCN6509By now, we all know that the simplicity movement dates back to Henry David Thoreaus famous sabbatical in the woods. And it kicked up some new dust in the early 1980s with the publication of Duane Elgin’s classic handbook, Voluntary Simplicity. Suffice it to say that the movement is more than a passing new-age trend.

Real Simple magazine, for instance, is taking Elgin’s movement for yet another spin. I should disclose that I’m the grateful recipient of a gift subscription to Real Simple. It’s a beautiful magazine and, for the most part, has the best intentions. Life is complicated enough these days, especially for families, and most of us could use some handy tips on streamlining our recipes and cleaning routines.

Cleaning frenzy?

Still, I worry. To magazine editors, simplicity has become a religion for the stressed. Order is godliness. Blank space is Nirvana. If these editors had their way, our homes would be totally purged of clutter — and nearly devoid of character. Our living rooms would be as sparsely furnished as a Quaker meetinghouse. Our kitchen and bathroom cabinets would be sanitized, organized, and alphabetized. The tools in the basement and garage would be labeled and stored in clear plastic boxes on shelves within easy reach.

If your inner slob is cringing, take heart: Most shelter magazines advertise a wide variety of products that will aid your efforts to simplify. Once your cabinets and closets are cleared, of course, you’ll have lots of room to stash all the spiffy new organizing components they want you to buy.

Problem is, I’m a born collector with years of garage sale shopping under my belt. Getting rid of things works against my nature. Just one example: My favorite hobby is making collage art – a messy pastime that’s fueled by my hopeless flea-market addiction. Over the years I’ve developed finely tuned radar for locating miscellaneous junk for potential art projects. According to the Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, I don’t (yet) qualify as a “compulsive hoarder,” since my clutter hasn’t reached the point where it produces “severe distress” or blocks entrance to our living room.

We’re only human

I envy disciplined homemakers with a talent for controlling clutter. And I salute them as they empty their junk drawers and attics. Nothing warms my heart more than the sight of these good people hosting rummage sales in my neighborhood.

But I’m trying to make peace with the reality that my home will never be featured in a magazine like Real Simple. My furniture is often covered with the flotsam and jetsam of a busy life — books, souvenirs, family photos and heirlooms, dog hair, cat hair, and unprocessed laundry. Sometimes I go through phases when this drives me crazy, and I end up parting with mementoes that, later, I wish I’d kept.

As I settle into middle age, I’m learning to value the richer textures of complexity. Real life is messy and difficult, and its broken parts can’t always be sorted by category or tastefully hidden from view. Our homes, along with all our crazy things, tell the stories of our lives.

If I’m ready to unload anything this season, it’s the ton of guilt I’ve accumulated after reading too many magazine articles on simplifying life. Like the ancient Egyptians in their pyramids, I plan to be buried with all my stuff. — Cindy La Ferle

9 thoughts on “Simple living is complicated

  1. I’ve never read “Real Simple” but if it’s a magazine then they are probably trying to sell something… :p

    For me, living simple is knowing I can let go of stuff without guilt – but keep the things that are special to me without guilt as well. My house is definitely not devoid of character, I enjoy reading, sewing, crochet, and many other things. I don’t mind having one or two projects visible. But I also try to keep these things contained and not have “too much”. I’ve been there, so living simple to me means having less stuff to clean, try to organize, and constantly put away.

    Of course, I have kids so this can only go so far. haha

  2. Thanks for this! I have been home on winter break this week at times feeling guilty about the messy places. I just took a deep breath of acceptance.

  3. Hah! I feel like I could write the book on this topic. This summer found me in a forced downsizing. From a 3,800 Sq. ft. suburban ranch where we resided for 20+ years, to a 1,000 sq. ft. apartment on the other side of town. In some ways, it has been liberating to lighten my load of stuff I never really cared about anyway. Good garage sales, good profit. However, there are many things in storage that I miss and long for. Mostly decorative items that just gave me pleasure to have around. I live for now with the absolute basics, and life is, indeed simpler. I do miss many “things” that I once had and hope to have in my home someday when I land in a permanent place. There is a happy medium which I hope to attain someday soon.

  4. I am turning 80 in two days. I want to sell my house so I have gone through the declutter phase. But it seems the longer I wait for a buyer the more things are sneaking back into my home. I used to say I was furnished in early orange crate now it is newer early orange crate.

  5. Cindy, I think you are correct…they are trying to sell us storage items!! Apparently, it is hot topic because almost every magazine out there has a de-clutter article, And somehow, I get sucked into reading them 🙂

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