Wednesday, February 3, 2016

the idolatry of minimalism

Spawned by a 1970’s art history movement, minimalism became the choice descriptor for simple art and design. It kept a low profile for several decades until something (the mystical powers of the mommy bloggers) in America caused the term to broaden its meaning beyond art and into every day life. Suddenly, the internet was giving us all the directions on how to downsize our wardrobes and discard nick-nacks and shrink paper piles and everything in between. Minimalism spawned whole new species a la minimalist parenting and minimalist cooking and minimalist hairstyling – and bit by bit, the fad became wisdom and we all realized that fat and cluttered and complicated were not actually recipes for happiness.

I bought into the minimalist philosophy long before I knew it was cool, long before Becoming Minimalist started telling me to do all the things I was already doing. My first house after college was a tried and true minimalist hut. The entire structure was made of earth. Good, clean dirt and grass and water and clay. I especially loved my dirt floor – I could drain my pasta water right next to the fire which was also dropping embers onto the floor of my kitchen-living-dining room. It was infested with rats and bats, and I loved everything about it. (The Peace Corps tends to attract not-high-maintenance people.) I had no furniture save a bed, a table with no chairs (because the village carpenter was clearly not looking for money) and a rough hewn shelf. And it was all I needed.

Not what most Americans think of when they hear "starter home," but I loved it.
Also, unrelated side note: baby face Aggie on my left there is graduating from high school this year. *tear*
Marriage and children pushed my minimalism boundaries a bit. Jeremy insisted on a not-dirt floor. I'm a good wife, so I conceded. When Bronwyn came along and started sleeping with us and none of the spaces in the house was big enough to fit our new bed, change was necessary. Bit by bit, we've pushed walls around and added a few amenities, taking a “step up” every year or so… and every time, I’ve felt super guilty about it. It’s like my inner minimalist is being asked to commit perennial felonies and I hate it.

I still find the simplicity of it stunning

the bungalow/rondoval/yert we custom made to fit our co-sleeping bed 

this is how we reno: Jeremy with power tools on top of a chair on top of a chair on top of
a table being stabilized by three boys pretending they are Jet Li. Call us for bookings, HGTV.

Principled is my middle name, and my minimalist principles are chiseled on stone tablets. One of the principles of our work is that we live with and like those around us. We believe strongly in the power of integration for effective communication and we’ve seen the fruit born of such an ideology. Rich people living amongst the poor must acknowledge the baggage they carry unless they want their dialogue to sound like this:

 “Hello! My name is $$$. I’m so happy to be here for the sake of $$$. Would you like to partner with us on $$$? Maybe we can get together and talk about $$$? Ok, well sounds like $$$ would be a good idea? Let’s chat more about $$$. Thanks! Bye… $$$$!”

True story: I have actually had people greet me (outside of Fimpulu, thankfully,) with the words, “Hello, Dollars!” Its crazy unsettling and it totally confirms the need to establish a different name lest we adopt $$$ as the super-inappropriate default.

Hard work pays off, and I’ll be purple duck if living in the bush doesn’t qualify as hard work. After several years, people commented on it – a lot – to us and to others. “Hey, there are these white people in our village and they live in just a house like ours!”

I’ve heard that no less than a dozen times, and I always pat myself on the back a little for it.

happy little homesteaders
Equally strong as our convictions around simple integration are our convictions around the science and theology of minimalism. Studies have proven that less clutter correlates with greater happiness and verily verily, we can attest that throwing junk away feels good. Furthermore, Jeremy and I are both proper Sunday School graduates and we know this to be true: Don’t store up your treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy. Have less crap, says the Teacher. And all God’s people shouted Amen.

But life is a forceful tutor. My baby got malaria. And then she got it again, just as Jeremy and I had too, and this happened over and over until our family malaria count is somewhere around 20 and we stopped counting because that’s silly. Our roof started to slowly dust away to nothing and we unloaded 10 cans of insecticide to assassinate the beetles eating it, and I don’t even want to think about the brain cells we killed with that choice. We’ve all had weird skin ailments and are far too comfortable with conversations about diarrhea. We had a season of hairy spider infestation too. Our newest thing is that we now have an indoor “water feature,” a tranquil waterfall flowing down the side of our kitchen wall collecting in a small pond that touches every square inch of our living room. So vogue.

One afternoon, I watched Bronwyn skype with Grandma, naked and fevered, lying on the floor and looking painfully pitiful. To say that I felt like a bad mom would be an understatement. That same day, Jeremy read me an article from a study in Uganda claiming that tin roofs, when compared with grass, saw a 50% reduction in the incidence of malaria. The wise husband started asking me if we should make some changes and I said “NOOOOOo!” faster than he could say “MALARIA.” My heels are dug in pretty deep in this Zam-mud. I dogmatically recited our mantra. "We live simply. As do our neighbors. If they can do this, so can we. We do not need more comforts than what we have. We. Do. Not.”

But I slept on Jeremy’s question all the same. For many nights... and mornings, mopping up the lake in the livingroom and dumping the mosquitos out of our little night-light-bug-sucker thingy and swabbing anti-fungal goo onto Leonie’s face and killing all the spiders of the world for Bronwyn.

The staunch conviction that we must live JUST like our neighbors started to waver a bit as I was rattled by my lack of hospitality towards my own children.

Hey Guilt Hey! Our minimalist principles are hard and fast, and so by conceding to change, it felt like we were wimping out, throwing in the towel, and embracing that which we’re most adamantly against. In our case, however, “go big or go home” is more than a tagline. It’s a mandate linked to real possibilities and real consequences. We understand that if we don’t take care of our family, we’ll have to opt out of this gig all together and it would behoove us to make sure that doesn’t happen. Alas, the hubby is right.

We’ve emphasized how simply we live to everyone who has tracked with our work. It’s kind of been a thing we may have bragged shared about more than once. (oh hey extra layer of guilt). But we’re going to have to change our story. Because we done gone ripped our roof off. We sure did. We tore some walls down and we we have begun operation hospitality: the effort to turn our house into a home. Dear everyone, the goals have changed.

Once upon a time, the goal was to live as simply as possible, idolizing minimalism and embracing an almost-ascetic brand of discomfort. I judged hard-core anyone who commented that they couldn't live like we do because truth is, yes you can - we are not special. But. Just because one can doesn't mean that one has to or that one should, and I've spent near on a decade parsing this distinction out. There’s a difference between seeking comforts because of a materialistic spirit and/or an immature avoidance of hard things... and seeking to not be so sickly and tired all the time. 

The goal now, therefore, is not to live comfortably, but to live comfortably enough. To have enough space that we can think and breathe without thinking and breathing on top of one another. To have enough of the household amenities that we aren’t stressing our bodies or our time to complete basic tasks. To have enough distance from the outside that we don’t feel like we are at constant war with the environs. To have enough aesthetic beauty to lift our spirits when needed. To have enough rooms and bed space so that the parents don't have to sleep with all of the kids forever and ever amen!


Not all the comforts, not more comfort for more comfort’s sake, but enough.

Enough is defined by a matrix of culture and age and personality and gumption and grace and when it comes to "how much is enough," one size fits all is inadequate and lame. We have had to draw the lines in our own (literal) sand, and we've done so prayerfully and with great forethought. 

There have been seasons when we've embraced less for less’ sake, and we’ve hurt ourselves. We stand actions of starting off in the village sans fanfare. We acknowledge that it is because of our early choices that today we are not dollar signs, but rather friends, neighbors, helpers, and co-workers. By the same token, it is because of our history and friendship that at this stage in the game no one gives a rat’s rear whether we change our roof or add some square footage. Truly, they don’t care. Because after nine plus years, surprise, surprise, the intrigue is gone, and people are genuinely happy that we are doing something nice for our family. (Confession: because guilt is a twisted friend, I compulsively polled people on this to make sure we weren’t making a huge mistake and that our friends would not covetously despise us forever. Weirdo.) But when we received the equivalent of the Papal blessing from the neighbor folk and the grass came flying off the roof, we knew it was ok.

When we were fresh and pink and smelled like we had just stepped out of Wegmans, the people of the village were watching to see what we were all about. Now years later, we have children, and THEY are the ones watching to see what we are all about. As a principled mother, I want them to see frugality not futility. I want them to see moderation, not masochism. There’s a way to not bow to the god of mammon and still care for your body, mind and soul… and there’s a way to responsibly spend the money to do so.

Today I stood in the original house, the one the size of my parent’s bathroom, stroking the walls and tearing up, saying to Jeremy how I would miss that precious structure; the one in which he carried me over the threshold, to which we brought home our first child, where we made a name for ourselves in more ways than one.

"We’ve come far," he said. "And we’ll go farther still," and back to demo he went.