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

A happier closet?

“I wanted to change my life without changing my life, by finding more happiness in my own kitchen.” — Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project

With autumn on its way, I’ve been pitching and sorting; letting go of things that no longer serve my lifestyle. On Labor Day weekend, I stuffed nearly half of my wardrobe and a pile of books into five giant trash bags, then dragged them to the front porch for the Vietnam Veterans of America donation pick-up.

Ive been inspired by The Happiness Project, a self-help guide I’m reading for our neighborhood book group. It’s the perfect time of year for a book about discovering what makes us happy — and how to employ simple changes that add up to contentment.

Author Gretchen Rubin is a practical soul with a real life — pretty much like the rest of us. She admits she’s inspired by “more radical happiness projects,” including Thoreau’s solitary sabbatical on Walden Pond (which I’ve always admired) as well as Elizabeth Gilbert’s exotic spiritual wanderings in Eat, Pray, Love (which I found a little flaky). But Rubin is a working wife and mother, and not the sort who’s inclined to do anything outlandish on the path to enlightenment. She simply wanted to to squeeze more juice out of her life — in her own apartment in New York.

So she embarked on a year of researching “happiness.”

As Rubin discovered, most people get a huge energy boost — which leads to happy feelings — when they create a sense order in their physical surroundings. If your eyes are starting to glaze over, take heart: De-cluttering is only one stop on the author’s quest for happiness. Later in the book, she also tackles the deeper philosophical theories on the subject.

But happiness begins at home, so that’s where she started.

“I went straight to the festering heart of my household clutter: my own closet,” Rubin explains.  While she didn’t hire an architect or a closet organizer to redesign her storage space, she employed what she calls the most “essential clutter tool” available to everyone: trash bags.

“Instead of making people feel more satisfied, a wide range of choices can paralyze them.” — Gretchen Rubin

“When I finished, I had four bags full of clothes, and I could see huge patches of the back of my closet,” Rubin recalls. “I no longer felt drained; instead, I felt exhilarated.”  After purging her closet, Rubin suddenly had easy access to pieces she would actually wear. Which meant she had more to wear.

“Although people believe they like to have a lot of choice, in fact, having too many choices can be discouraging. Instead of making people feel more satisfied, a wide range of choices can paralyze them.”

Amen to that. A longtime collector, I tend to hoard old prom dresses, “skinny” jeans that used to fit, Halloween costumes, and bridesmaid gowns that could pass for Halloween costumes. And having spent the last two years working as a background extra in Michigan films, I’ve accumulated an “extra” wardrobe of thrift-shop costumes that compete for space in the closets of our spare bedrooms. I wear only a fraction of these “choices” daily. I end up wearing the same pieces because I’m too lazy — or overwhelmed — to weed through my own wardrobe jungle.

Following Rubin’s example, I brought several trash bags upstairs and got busy. In the process, I discovered buried treasure in the back of my closet, plus dozens of pieces that had gone out of fashion ages ago. Not to mention all the stuff that wouldn’t fit.

So I divided my potential discards into two piles: Clothing I could wear at our three-season home in western Michigan, and clothing to donate to charity. I find its much easier to part with costly fashion mistakes when I know that someone in need will use and enjoy them.

As happiness expert Gretchen Rubin discovered, weeding out a closet is more than a simple act of getting organized for a new season. By making it easier to find the clothes I really want to wear, I free up the morning energy I need to devote to more important activities — and things that make me happy. The kitchen pantry is next on the list. — Cindy La Ferle