Thursday, August 25, 2011

Minimalism - an update on our progress (or lack thereof)

A number of people have been asking us about our attempts to simplify our lives by getting rid of stuff. Others have been understandably silent on the matter. The whole notion, after all, can sound a bit preachy or, cringe, trendy. But hey, it's my blog, and I'm not forcing anyone to read it.

The truth is, the whole movement can get pretty extreme, almost religious in its zeal, and we're not the religious types. But like most religions, there is at least grain of human truth, of wisdom at its core. Taken to its extreme, the minimalist movement is a rejection of modernity, a rebellion against consumer culture, a search for something more, well grounded, rooted, natural. And well I appreciate the sentiment, humankind has been searching for ways to return to what is simple and true for a long, long time.

The desire to get back to something more real, more true, is nothing new. Neither is the idea that we're extraordinarily alienated in our modern, secular world, worshiping false idols in the form of consumer goods or celebrities or sentimental tragedies. As Leonard Cohen sings, "everybody's got this aching feeling like their father or their dog just died." But we don't even need it to be our own dog any more, it can be our neighbour's dog, or the dog's puppies who are being left without a mother. Or it could be some drunken singer or a flighty princess - it's all tragic.  But what about dear old Dad? Well, if a dog can evoke such strong emotions, how much can be left to elevate Dad's tragedy. But that's o.k. The dog, the princess, the singer, it's all so tragic. 

But I digress. What I'm trying to get at is that I completely agree with the perspective that the world is full of lost souls trying to find their place, their meaning, their identity, and eventually a little internal peace. And in the absence of these, they languish in sentimentality, abnormal devotion, and mass consumption as an alternative. I can't help but agree, because I'm one of them (every day I'm tempted to buy one more coffee, one more muffin, whatever little thing will pick my day up a bit, even though I know it won't last). But the search for meaning, for truth, for beauty and simplicity, has been going on for years, since long before mass consumerism, capitalism and television. Just look to the Romantic poets - perhaps the minimalists of their time.

What inspired Julie and I about minimalism was the idea of getting rid of some of the noise, the static in our lives. We thought about our house, the toys everywhere, the stuff that just kept coming in, the difficult time we had keeping the place clean, and how much we wasted - how little we actually used. And we saw that it wasn't good. Moreover, we saw that it was a bad example to set for Chloe and Emily (it's funny how their clutter of toys was what brought us to our realization - not our stuff). We saw that the empire of crap we were creating was not fulfilling, was not helpful in our lives. In fact, it took away from the time we had to spend with each other, with our kids, with ourselves. It was, at best, a distraction. At worst, it was controlling what little free time we had. My Grandfather has said for years, "if you don't rule over stuff, the stuff will rule over you. And you don't want to be ruled by stuff." Maybe this is the best argument there is for a more minimalist lifestyle.

I agree that consumer goods do become false idols when they're owned simply for the sake of owning them; when they're guarded and kept close out of some fear of losing them - as if by loosing our stuff, we loose ourselves. But not buying what we don't need, is that all we require to discover truth and fulfillment?  I don't think it's quite that simple. Of course not. But once we're no longer quite so distracted, we might have more space to pause, to think, to reflect, and that's probably a good start.

By turning down the noise, slowing down the blur of  things in our daily lives - the empty calories, maybe we'll discover a few joys that have been right there in front of us all along. In the end, maybe it's not as much about evil modernity as it is about freedom of choice and self-control. After all, we all created this world we live in - this world of mass-consumerism, and we continue to create it everyday. We can change it too, and we don't need to start cooking over campfires to do it.

So, back to where we're at. How hard can it be to throw stuff out? Well, it's surprisingly hard. And I don't mean making the choices. That part has been easy for both of us. But in a household with a two bag garbage limit and just one car to take things to the Salvation Army and the garbage dump, it takes a long time to get rid of stuff. I'm absolutely stunned to find just how much stuff we've been accumulating during the 5 years we've lived here and how long it takes to go through it. We're taking a one room at a time approach, and we're getting there.

Meanwhile, and this is the most important part, we're both being careful not to bring anything new into the house until we've talked it over and established that we either really need it or really want it. The result is that very little is actually entering the house. It's a start, and we are starting to notice a difference. But what we thought we'd be able to pull off in a month will probably take a few years. On the upside, we're making our next move, whenever it comes, a heck of a lot easier.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Shit my kid says - August

Chloe has quite a vivid imagination. She's always playing games with her dolls. She takes them to daycare, on holidays, to the splash pad. And she's often making up crazy names for them, like Pinu or Chara, or Chacha. I can't even remember them all, there are so many.

So one morning Julie came out of our room and heard Chloe playing in her room with her dolls.  She was putting them to bed, tucking them in, as she often does, when she said, "There now. It's time to go to sleep baby Accident." She went about the rest of the day taking baby Accident to all of the various activities with which she was involved. Julie and I couldn't stop laughing all day.

For the record, she didn't have a clue what she was talking about, but I think she has the name all ready for the next one.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A child's voice

The moments of my childhood appear to me now as lost treasures. I can't remember the bulk of them. I couldn't for the life of me, for example, explain how I got from there to here - what I was like as a two year old, a five year old, even a teenager.... not really. And yet I believe my adult life, for better or for worse, has been shaped by who I was as a child. Isn't that irony for you. I can't recall most of the innumerable defining moments in my life, and yet I can't escape them either.

My earliest memory is of falling into water. Missing the mark while trying to step from a dock to a boat. That's it - the dock, the boat, water. That's what I remember. Just flashes. My parents have filled in the rest. I was following my father. It was Kingston harbour (the horror). I apparently sank like a stone and Mom jumped immediately into the dark, murky water, trying to memorize where she'd seen me fall. She flailed her hands about in the water until she found me.

After the incident in Kingston harbour, my memories become a blur for a while. I remember my Grandfather telling me I had to go to school all day - that it was the law of the land. That was when I was entering Grade one. I remember, later, Mom having snacks ready for us when we got home from school each day. I remember having to face Dad when I was suspended for smoking at school. He said nothing for a long time. That was the worst part.

For years and years our lives are confined, to a greater or lesser extent, to the parameters our parents set up for us. And all of that time all we want to do is free ourselves from their hold. The boundaries our parents establish for us provide safety, security, comfort - a Garden of Eden of sorts. But let's face it, they also represent tyranny in the fullest sense of the word. But then so does the Garden of Eden. Is there any greater tyrant than God with his father-knows-best rules and expectations? All she did was eat a fucking apple.

But of course it wasn't about the apple for Eve, just as it wasn't about the cigarette for me. It was about asserting individuality - about saying, "hey, I'm here. I exist, I'm autonomous, and I can prove it. - I smoke, therefore I am." For Eve's sins, Man (and woman) was tossed from God's enlightened despotism. Just what Eve wanted, I presume, until she found herself having to make all of her own decisions and deal with her own mortality - nice touch God. "You don't want to play by my rules, you can figure out how to light a damn fire to keep warm, pay your own tuition, find yourself a job and oh, by the way, you're going to kick the bucket some day." Sound like Dad? Dads never pull any punches, and neither does God.

Of course there's nothing wrong with any of this - at least the parent part. Our most important role as parents is to a) keep the kid safe, and b) prepare her for a world without us - a world where she can assert her individuality and, by that assertion, achieve an identity and... freedom.

And for all that, as adults we have complex, often highly charged feelings about our parents. We long to be under their protection again. We're angry because we know we can't go back. As in the Garden, with knowledge innocence is lost but a certain freedom is gained. Freud, Milton, and many others have all explored these themes. We resent our parents for being less than perfect - after all, if they're human, how can they truly protect us? We're furious that one day they'll die and abandon us here. We resent that they brought us here but can't protect us from the one thing that matters, our eventual demise. And as we grow older ourselves, we soften and gain a more tender view of our parents. They are our the link, crucial to our story. Their humanity no longer angers and frightens us. It informs us. And for the first time, if we're lucky, we may eventually start to form a true relationship with each parent - one not based on power, protection or mentoring, but on two human beings who share an important bond, and a common understanding. It's not easy - lots of baggage, but it's possible. And it seems to me that it is an important step in growing up. That's the part that's missing with religion. God, the church, Mother Mary. They don't allow us to grow up. They continue to shelter us and direct us. 

I look at Chloe and the many trials she must face each day - both with us and the world, and it gets me thinking of our relationships with our parents. Everyday she's growing up, but most of the fears, the comforting, the little battles (and there are so many of them right now), she won't remember. She'll struggle one day, as I am now, to remember the details of a childhood that will so clearly inform who she is as an adult. She won't be able to go back, to be that child again. But she won't be able to escape it either. How many times a day do we tell her what she has to do to be a "good girl" or a "big girl." We tell her what she can't do, what she shouldn't do. She wants to please us (for now) and we exploit that desire to please in order to ensure that she has the right socialization to get along in the world. We have no choice. It's our job. But oh, how much she tries already to assert her individuality, to say, "I'm here, and I matter." And it's our role too, to acknowledge this assertion.  I don't remember all the childhood moments that have come to define me, but I do remember always being able to speak, to have a voice.