Frugality. Philosophy. Poverty. Clarity.
That’s the timeline of my craving for LESS. Sometimes it came by necessity, but most often it came by choice.
I won’t go back to “from the time I was born” stories, but my non-materialism was established early. College meant penny pinching, of course, and following my dad’s advice to write down the amount of every purchase for a month (the beginnings of learning to live within one’s means). As the years have passed and income levels have soared and crashed, I’ve found that above all else, simplicity rules. Where I see so many Americans addicted to acquisition, I’m addicted to the idea of “get rid, get rid, get rid.”
Here are some of the most compelling lessons, and decisions, I’ve faced about how less is more.
Ah, the Decade of Living Dangerously. It was amazing and wild, a thrill a day. What an adventure! Over ten years, I moved eleven times with stints in Seattle, Kirkland, Portland, Santa Cruz, and Los Angeles. Needless to say, I barely unpacked when arriving at a new apartment, didn’t hang pictures on the walls, didn’t acquire furniture except for small pieces that were inexpensive or free. A nightstand here, a bookcase there. After a lifetime of acquiring books—god knows how much money I’ve spent at Powell’s—the number of boxes filled with books diminished with each move. Thirty became twenty, then ten, then five.
When the nomadism ended, my 2015 move included a bed, a computer desk, maybe twenty boxes, and a small assortment of miscellany. It felt good to live so light, so unencumbered by material objects. By stuff.
One luxury that was tough to give up was electronic entertainment. I used to have an old-style tube TV (about the size and weight of a Shetland pony, it seemed), but when Internet platforms like YouTube and Hulu became easy substitutes, I gave away the behemoth and used my laptop. No broadcast stations or cable. Yeah, it was a shock at first, but I adjusted. All the news you need can be found online and on the radio, and a free library card gives you access to mountains of free movies.
The “no TV” life has become the new normal, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Even more than the money saved, my mental bandwidth is free of the barrage of shitty news, disasters, and horrors that seems to be the lifeblood of mainstream TV. No thanks.
I never was one to “decorate”—even thinking the word brings on a shudder. Right now, my living room has one large tapestry on the wall, one that I created as a backdrop for a Rosetta Stone replica. Other than that, the walls in the house are bare. Visual clutter is reduced to a minimum.
When I want to imagine the cleanest, simplest home environment, I go to YouTube for videos of Japanese homes, gardens, and meditation spaces where the key words are sparse and spare. Learning the history and philosophy of the Japanese rock garden and the tea ceremony takes me out of the churn of mental detritus and into a state of flow.
Each week, I go to the library and leave with a stack of DVDs. One National Geographic documentary had a strong impact. I watched Live Free or Die and then watched it again. And several more times. Seeing people who had escaped the tyranny of modern life and were “rewilding”—choosing a life that is much more primitive, primal, and literally grounded—was one of the most refreshing things I’d come across in a long time. After each viewing, I turned off the DVD player, sat quietly, and simply looked around at my surroundings. I noticed that my heart rate had slowed. That incessant “monkey mind” that drives us nuts—that we flail about to silence with meditation or medication—was gone. I didn’t have to worry, plan, think, analyze, question, argue. I was happy to sit back and listen to the breeze wafting through the trees, to watch the leaves fluttering or a squirrel scamper by. It was a gentle, quiet return to the Beginner’s Mind.
More of this, I thought.
Since watching the documentary, I’ve found myself ever more curious about “earth skills”—that is, the knowledge you’d need for that sort of primitive lifestyle. The irony of learning ancient technologies (like building levers with bamboo stalks and rocks) by watching online videos is not lost on me. I found myself in the retailer that used to make me break out in hives, Home Depot, buying a saw and sisal rope, measuring plywood planks that might eventually become something crude but useful. At a certain point in the construction, I looked at the prototype coffee table and thought, Argh, nope, but the exercise itself was good as were the hours practicing lashing pieces of bamboo with twine. Mastery is far off, but I’m reminded that doing things with your hands other than typing on a computer keyboard can bring its own level of satisfaction.
What People Think
One element of a “less is more” lifestyle falls in the What People Think category. When people drop by my place and see the bare walls, more often than not they make a face and offer tips on “what could be done” with all that barren wall space. Too bad their well-intentioned advice is falling on deaf ears. For me, what could be done with the wall space is being done. The nothingness is the point. For me, it feels good, and luckily, I’m old enough to not care if my flavor of home décor matches theirs or not. The older we get, the easier it becomes to let go of those “Keeping Up with the Whoevers” ideology that we start hearing, and often adopting, at a young age.
At this point, my “less is more” ethos is firmly established. I love watching films about minimalism (like The Minimalists Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus). I love taking bags of stuff to the thrift shop and saying “Adios, stuff.” I spend less money. I worry less. I let go of the stress of “have, do, be, acquire, get, attain MORE”—realizing that more is an abstraction that stretches into infinity. We can never have all, but more is always there, teasing and seducing us at every turn.
I can put my feet up and take a slow sip of this simple, beautiful thing called life because I have enough.