Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Surprisingly Guilt-Free Minimalist Living Guide: A Book Review of "The Joy of Less"

I hate clutter. It's strewn across our entertainment center. It's crowding our closets and turning our attic into a scene from Hoarders

But Francine Jay's book, The Joy of Less, is changing our home, and happily -- unlike most self-help projects -- it's surprisingly fun. As we free up space around us, we're finding more room to play, more counters for completing projects, and maybe best of all, the mental freedom to relax in our home.

The fear of listening to a minimalist's advice is it's rife for piling on guilt for first-world living or stirring up childhood memories of clean room nagging. Francine Jay avoids both of these pitfalls by continually underscoring the positive mental and social benefits of streamlining your possessions, and emphasizing there's no magic number for possessions. 

The "magic number" provision really encouraged me, because I wasn't sure someone who had two babies in three years could be a minimalist. Sure there's a lot of unnecessary crap listed on baby gift registries -- peepee teepees, designer burp cloths -- but I like having extra pack-n-plays for portable naps, a dedicated changing table, and even a heated wipes warmer. 

This minimalist living guide really becomes a one-size-fits-all experience, accessible for any income, living arrangement, or family size, offering concrete steps toward opening up your living space. Francine defines three qualifications for every item to keep in your home: it must be useful, emotional, or beautiful.

1. Useful: not potentially useful, not a back-up to something else that's useful, but an item that is used regularly. This qualification caused me to clear out six trash bags of stuff in one evening, mostly duplicates of one good item that we use regularly: sample shampoos, old cosmetics, excess Tupperware, a glider rocker, extra jackets, bookshelves, a wobbly stack of unused burp cloths, salvaged parts of a broken humidifier, toys, and lots of clothes.

Useful Things really collected in our home, when Wally and I married. Joining households meant a stack of colanders, a set of coffee makers, and multiple shelves of duplicate Catholic theology books. If we brewed a pot of coffee each hour, and never drank from the same mug twice, we could've gone a week before running out of mugs.

2. Emotional: something that elicits positive emotions and memories, usually gifts, heirlooms, or souvenirs. For some reason, these items fill up our closets and drawers, not important enough to display, but too sentimental to give away. As part of the freedom I experienced, to reclaim our home for the needs of our family, instead of the storage of stuff, I gave away a 2-foot high stack of handmade baby blankets, gifted to us at the birth of our kids, mostly too small, too scratchy, or just too many to use, much less store, in a house that doesn't even have a linen closet. I also upgraded a piece of art that Wally and I picked up on our honeymoon to display in our kitchen. It's not the coolest piece of art, but it has a good story and is worthy of more appreciation than the bottom of our closet can offer. 

The author notes that something shouldn't be guaranteed a place in our homes just because it elicits an emotional connection. She offers the perspective that while we may hold onto our things to commemorate the past, they may actually be causing us to live in the past: 

"How many of us still have cheerleading uniforms, letter [jackets], swimming trophies, or notebooks from long-forgotten college classes? We rationalize keeping them as evidence of our achievements... However, these items are usually stuffed in a box somewhere, not proving anything to anybody. If that's the case, it may be time to release these relics of yesterday's you."

3. Beautiful: best summarized by Francine's own words: 

"The brilliant glaze on a beautiful vase, or sleek lines of a modernist chair, may bring a deep and joyful satisfaction to our souls; therefore, such items have every right to be part of our lives. The caveat: they must be respected and honored with a prominent place in our homes."

Francine follows the acrostic "S-T-R-E-A-M-L-I-N-E" as she outlines strategies for downsizing in your home. She may feel I've missed the point or didn't complete the minimalist conversion, since I found the extreme detail unnecessary, once I adopted her overall perspective. However, for someone in a more extreme situation, perhaps they've lived in their home for many decades and collected more stuff than they can handle, Francine's system walks through a very comprehensive guide to declutter, organize, and simplify life.

For my purposes, I found this set of questions from the book more beneficial than Francine's detailed system, with the caveat that a "yes" to any of these questions is not an automatic pass to stay in our home:

1. Have you used it in the past year?

2. Do you expect to use it in the near future?

3. Does it make your life easier, more beautiful, or more pleasurable? How?

4. Do you have something similar?

5. Is it hard to maintain or clean, and if so, is it worth the effort?

6. Would it be difficult to replace?

7. Would you take it with you if you were moving?

8. How would your life change if you didn't own it? 

While Francine generally admonishes storage of an item if it's in your home for purposes of positive-emotions or beauty, preferring instead that it be displayed in a proper and prominent place, she makes an exception for seasonal decorations. Still, if annual Christmas decorations cause panic attacks, or packing everything back into storage overshadows the joy of the season, it might be time to ask if it deserves a place in your home.

Quick-and-Easy Advice:

1. Decline freebies. Keychains, t-shirts, magnets, pens, and other unimportant items usually go unused, cluttering our drawers.

2. Keep a donation box in the garage. Sometimes we hold onto items, simply because they're still in good condition, and potentially useful. The good feeling we receive from donating these items to others is far more beneficial than the clingy fear that keeps us holding onto them in our garages, attics, closets, or worst of all, when all of the hidden storage overflows, our living space. 

If giving away an item feels wasteful, because of the money invested, or the potential to need it in the future, it may be easier to consider selling it. We made some good money in our initial minimalist sweep by selling a chair on Craigslist, selling a lot of clothes at Kid-to-Kid Resale, and selling a box of media to Half-Price Books.

3. Keep counter tops clear. Our butler's pantry is the drop-place of stuff. It gathers in piles or effortlessly spreads to the adjoining shelf, and the surface becomes useless instead of filling its potential as a great place to write quick notes, prepare craft activities, serve dinner, or set items on their way to the car (lunch, diaper bag, purse). I've started making a concerted effort to make this a short-term transition zone, instead of a piling zone.

I'll close with a thought that continues to help motivate my minimalist efforts, as I look around our living room, bedroom, kitchen: the things in our home tell our story. 

"Let us hope," Francine writes, "it's not 'I choose to live in the past,' or 'I can't finish the projects I start.' Instead, let's aim for something like, 'I live lightly and gracefully, with only the objects I find functional or beautiful.'"

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