What does it mean to simplify?
I wondered this as I woke up from a nap on the couch this afternoon. Not for the first time, it felt daunting to look around my home and behold the dust and clutter. It’s not actually a pigsty—but neither is it the same kind of clean living space I grew up with.
Not for the first time I had a fleeting notion that if I only had a different house—the right house—my life would be more simple. Here’s what this house would have (for starters):
- some of those custom designed closets
- laundry equipment on the same floor as the bedrooms
- a trash compacter
- an over-the-stove ventilator
- no carpet in the kitchen
- many, many other modern conveniences lacking in a house built in 1929
Next I thought about what it would take to get this simpler, more efficient house. First, I’d need more income. That would require a different job. The new job would probably require some new skills. I’d need to shop for an interview outfit, then write a new resume.
The new job would likely require moving to a new city, because chances of finding a better job in this city are next to nil.
Then I’d have to sell the current house—not to mention convincing my family of the wisdom of all this. I’d have to get out every item of crap in the house and do something with it. Handle at least once, if only to throw it in a box. Ideally, I’d sort it, giving some away, taking other stuff to the recycling center.
If I didn’t want to do this myself, I’d need to hire someone.
Will my life be simplified by getting a more efficient house? No. Today, simplest house is the one I’m already in.
I find myself in a quandary. We’re living between value systems—the old one being my mother’s, in which most married women kept their houses clean. It probably sucked, but at least everyone was doing it. Truly, the only people I know with clean houses have other women come in and clean them. Not one of my friends keeps her—or his—house like our mothers did.
The new value system is that which puts work, relationships and family time above housekeeping. This has to be good. Yet the piles in my house reach a critical mess eventually and I find myself not wanting to go home. Our environments do make a difference. Dusting does matter.
How to balance all this out? If it were really as “simple” as getting some new organizers, or devising “staging areas” around the house, or “delegating housework,” or setting up a “family organization center,” don’t you think I would have done that already?
By “you,” I’m addressing people who write those articles in women’s magazines with titles like “Put an End to Clutter Once and For All;” usually freelance writers—of whom I used to be one, so I’m not just pointing my finger at random others—who are coached to “write what you know” and “tell an old story in a fresh, new way,” and “sell to your audience;” and who are themselves probably stressed-out women whose lives seem unmanageable for one reason or another and whose editors advise that it’s easier to write about changing your kitchen drawers than about on getting a grip on your entire effing life, and besides, no one would buy the latter one anyway.
To borrow from the philosophy of Twelve Step programs, I submit that uncontrollable external situations, very often, are inner messes made visible. Things become unmanageable because we try to control forces over which we really don’t have any power.
(Note to self: insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.)
I’ve done some reading on home organization, time management, voluntary simplicity, and stuff like that. It’s all been helpful. I now use an empty ice cube tray to hold my earrings, and store kitchen utensils near the space where they are used. These are victories! They feel good!
But how far can this approach take us? As I surveyed my living room today, horizontally, I wondered: will I ever go through my entire house and devise little systems for simplifying everything, having a place for everything and then keeping everything in its place? Like the paper clips and obsolete computer software? The elastic hair thingies and the recycled ziploc bags?
Well, yes or no?
If my answer’s no, then what? Am I going to throw out all this stuff in the interest of paring down to non-essentials? It sounds really, really, good. I can live without twisty-ties, and clipped out magazine recipes. But what does a simplified person do when she really needs a paper-attaching implement and has thrown out her paper clips and maybe staples, too? At what point does paring down because a royal pain in the ass, counterproductive and complicated?
There has to be a better way to simplify than focusing on external stuff. Maybe if we could get back to basics with our inner lives, we’d find ways to simplify our environments. Or the messes wouldn’t bother us so much.
When all is said and done, it’s simpler—not easier—to do the internal work first. After all, the two are not separate. In dreams the house is a symbol of the self. Is a cluttered house the sign of a cluttered self? Absolutely, in my case.
Some days, the best way to simplify is to start with the only things we can control, that are ours. The body. The mind. The breath.
The breath is the foundation of meditation. It is a continual life force that connects us to the rivers of life and nature and the earth; to that which is bigger than we are. We can learn to control thoughts and actions—but nothing else. I believe that doing this opens the mind to solutions about the rest of the stuff. The key is remembering what we can control and what we can’t.
What do you think? What does it mean to you to simplify?