29 May 2015

Living Small in a Big City

This week, we are hosting The Cousins (all five of them!) and their mommy & daddy (AKA Nathan's sister and her husband) in our little one bedroom in New York City.  Add those bodies to our four (Nathan is traveling currently), and we come to a total of ELEVEN.  Eleven people in 450 square feet.  That's around 41 square feet per person.  It's been a little cramped, but we've worked it out pretty well, all things considered.

While I was having a moment of alone time (in the bathroom - the only room currently with just one person at a time in it), I was thinking that it might be helpful to share some of our family's survival tips whilst navigating the wilds of New York.  I've read lots of articles recently about "living small" and "downsizing" and "simplifying" and, while I believe these are helpful for developing new habits in daily life (or, in some cases, opening an entirely new arena of consumer products for "storage," etc.), I think many of them fail to get at the root of true simple living, which - at least for our family - is spiritual in nature.

I have lots to say on this issue, so I've decided to begin a little series on our own family's practices - or at least, *my* practices which I try to work into our family life.  Not in any way to "show off" - but in the spirit of sharing - sort of like a "life hack" series for small living on the cheap.  Also, I wanted to use as many quotation marks as possible in a single article.

To begin with, let me say that for me, the idea of "small living" and "living simply" is a bit of a loaded idea.  I've seen articles on families of 50 living in a little box and saying how happy they are (that's a bit of an exaggeration, of course), but when I see these articles, I also see the expensive storage solutions and fancy apartments (in high rises with elevators and exercise rooms and storage rooms in the basement).  These are speaking to a particular demographic, but assume that such a lifestyle is attainable by everyone (because they think that everyone lives in their socio-economic bracket).  That is always a little irritating to me because I don't live in that bracket, and I venture to guess that a majority of people also do not.  Like those "manage your money" books, which tell you to reduce things like your entertainment budget in order to save money - we don't even have an entertainment budget!

These articles go on to say how easy it is to "let go" of clutter and how doing so brings their family together.  While this may be true - we know for instance that there are links between emotional health and hoarding, as an example - it's not as simple as throwing stuff away.  For me, the issue of hoarding and holding on to "stuff" is partly a symptom of living in poverty - the fear of "letting something go" because one might need it later is very real for people who are living from one paycheck to another.  It is also a holdover from my grandmother's generation, whose parents lived through the Great Depression and therefore learned to live very frugally.  To get rid of something useful is almost a sin - someone might need it sometime!  And of course, for people who have the space, this isn't really an issue (don't worry, Gramma - I am very happy you saved all that you have - especially the clothes!).

Another layer of this issue is that consumption in our culture is highly valued.  We're are always hearing about the "new and improved" products available for our purchase, and then of course there is the storage industry, making new and fancier ways to hide the stuff we already have.  Our economy is based on consumption - which in itself isn't necessarily an evil thing - but we do know that consumption without conscience isn't the best idea.  We even have "shopaholics," who use shopping and the acquisition of things as therapy - and I must admit that I've sometimes purchased things simply because I want them, and not necessarily because I need them.

But all of these issues belie the greater problem - that we base our worth - our REAL worth - on what we possess.  Now, it may be easy to poo-poo that idea, but our culture promotes this everywhere we look.  Everyone has a "thing" (or many things) that s/he might covet - a particular car, a new dress or shoes, a fancy blender (guilty!), or an income bracket - things we say to ourselves "I will be happy when I acquire this." Even those "living simply" articles tell us that we must buy other things than the things we have to live simply and be happy.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to improve - but what about improving our selves - our minds, our hearts, our capacity for virtue, our discipline?  [And - before you accuse me of being "un-American" (I can hear that right now, especially on account of all the culture "bashing" that you might perceive), let me also share the caveat that I love my country, and I also love humanity, of which my country is a small part.  I am simply using my training in cultural anthropology to tease out some of the shortcoming that I perceive - not to place blame - but to address and rectify.]

End sermon!

I've already taken up a bit of space in my pontification, but I wanted to share some practical ideas before I run out of steam!  These are little idea nuggets that I have placed in the front of my mind when designing the flow of our home and household:

1.  My worth is not based on what I possess.  Of course, I have touched on this earlier, but it is very important!  The Baha'i Teachings share that our true nature is spiritual, and that our Creator takes no mind to our wealth, but rather to our spiritual practices.  Baha'u'llah says,

"O SON OF BEING! Busy not thyself with this world, for with fire We test the gold, and with gold We test Our servants."  

For me, this doesn't mean live the life of an aesthete, but to not let our possessions be the masters of us.  Our belongings are meant to improve our life - and the life of our community - not become adornments for us to lord over others.  If we use what wealth we have in helping others, then we have mastered this.

2.  I will get what I need.  This idea is a little esoteric in nature, but I believe that if I am moving in accordance with Divine Will, then I don't need to worry about not having enough.  We all know the Rolling Stones song "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and  (But if you try sometimes, well you might find, You get what you need.)"  Sort of like that.  This is the driving force as to why we are in New York City right now - we can't really afford it (we currently aren't, to be honest) - but Nathan was accepted into Juilliard.  One does not simply say "no" to a Juilliard acceptance.  So we scrimp and save (well, there's nothing to save, so it's all scrimping at the moment), we enroll in the Food Stamps program and in Affordable Healthcare, and we cram ourselves into a small one-bedroom apartment.  For some, this may seem a little nuts (of course, to others, we are living in relative luxury), but we trust that this work is of service to humanity, and so we pursue it.

3.  I'd rather have a smoothly-running household (i.e. not cluttered) than a lot of things.  For me, this means prioritizing.  The more dishes I have, the more I have to wash.  My awesome cast iron sewing machine is sitting in storage, but my trusty busted Husqvarna and serger are sitting in our hall closet.  We each only have one (set) of towel(s).  Nine tenths of the girls toys are still at their grandparents' house.  We are fortunate that we have the luxury of extra space in which to hold our extra stuff until we decide to deal with it.  But I'm happy with what I've chosen to bring, and what I've left behind.  The less stuff we have, the less tidying I have to do, and lord knows I've got enough of that to do as it is.

4.  Don't let anyone else tell you what to do/stop telling other people what to do.  Ha!  I'm so tired of all of this unwanted advice - and tired of being offended by it or - on the other hand - dumping a ton of it out on other people.  I hope that you take all of this with a grain of salt - and that you take only what you find helpful and leave the rest.  Life is for learning and growing and JOY!  xoxo