Simple Family

what if you're a minimalist who loves to give (and receive) gifts?

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Here is the truth: I love receiving and I love giving gifts.

I've spent the better part of a decade trying to ignore the anticipation and utter joy I feel when I have the perfect gift in mind for a loved one. Or the tingly happiness I feel when someone bestows upon me something that I absolutely adore. I’ve tried to chase these feelings away because I thought that they were in direct conflict with the life I wanted to live personally and, if we’re being really honest, with the life I espouse to live in public.

I’ve tried to chase these feelings away because I thought that they were in direct conflict with the life I wanted to live personally and, if we’re being really honest, with the life I espouse to live in public.

After the thousands of words I’ve personally written and read about how mindless consumerism is causing so many ills in our society… Well how could I look myself in the mirror as I wrapped up one more gift?

Then I tried on the same advice we offer up time and again to reader and client alike: there is no right way to be a New Minimalist.

It’s about living inside my unique combination of values and priorities. And for me, that means leaning into the love I have for giving and receiving gifts in a way that is slow, intentional, and as kind as possible to the environment.

Below are my personal guidelines for giving gifts.

If they work for you, please try them out. And if not, no worries. You keep doing you:)

My family’s holiday card this year. We really do wish you a happy everything!

My family’s holiday card this year. We really do wish you a happy everything!

1) Action and word before stuff.

The reason I feel so confident stepping into my gifting stockings this year is that I’ve taken the time to step back from and really consider the motivation behind my actions. When I was young, I gave as many gifts as my piggy bank would allow. I was so desperate to show how much I loved my family but unsure of how to express myself. So instead I decided that stuff equals love, as in: “the more stuff I give you, the more I love you and the more loved you will feel.”

My relationship to gift giving now is much more reflective, much more specific, more refined. What I hope is not to prove my love through stuff, but to echo in an object or experience what I try to embody in language and action throughout the year: “I see you. I love you. I’m paying attention.”

2) Scale matters.

Something I’ve been really careful with is not writing myself a gift-giving blank check simply because I’ve decided it’s important to me. Like what if I decided to gift Lark a gift every week because I love her and I love giving gifts? I could imagine that within the month that act of giving would feel exponentially less meaningful. And within two months I’d likely resent this unintended weekly chore I’d created for myself. Likewise, if my goal was to accurately represent how much I love Cam through stuff, I’d be overburdened (and very in debt) rushing around to acquire as many things as I could. My decade as a minimalist has taught me a beautiful lesson that often times it is the rarity of an occasion or object that makes it so special.

often times it is the rarity of an occasion or object that makes it so special.

3. Above all else, it is the thought that counts.

You know how people use the word “literally” to mean “figuratively” — it’s opposite?

Like, “There were no parking spots outside! I had to literally park a million miles away.”

To which I’d like to say, “Wow, you are a really fast walker to have circumnavigated the globe 40 times in the past 10 minutes!“ (Sorry. Done being snarky.)

But I bring this up because I think the same thing has happened over time to the expression, “It’s the thought that counts.” That phrase now means something like, “Even though I hate this object / have no use for it / have literally no idea why you got it for me because it in no way reflects my taste, needs or desires, at least you bought me something.”

I’d like to reclaim that phrase and use it as I believe it’s intended. Gift-giving is all about thought. Not about money. Not about quantity. Not at all about checking things off a list. It’s about taking the time to really consider a person’s sense of style or humor. It’s about paying attention to the little things they say over the course of a year about their crummy coffee grinder, noticing how they have to stand on their tip-toes to reach their favorite mug, remembering how they mentioned that smell of vetiver reminds them with deep pleasure of forest where they grew up. This level of thoughtfulness is what actually matters and what meaningfully connects the gift-giver and gift-received in a way that just buying stuff never could

4. Practice gratitude and grace.

My daughter is just entering a phase where nothing brings her more pleasure than to imitate my expressions or noises I make. I typically find this hilarious and precious. But on occasion I’ll look to see her grimacing at me and I panic. Is she sick? In pain? Have something caught in her throat? No, she’s showing me how poorly I’m masking my own anger at having to empty the dishwasher again.

What she’s shown me is that even words and deeds only matter so much; the spirit in which something is done is the most important of all. So sure, I could say, “Lark, be sure you savor your food and open your gifts thoughtfully!” But if I down my own dinner while standing over the sink or quickly start to clean up wrapping paper before really engaging in a gift? Well we can guess which example she’ll follow. So I want to be extra certain this year before exchanging gifts that I personally take the time to slow my mind, to be present, and to feel and express gratitude for not just the objects I receive but the abundance of health and love around me.

What about you? What are your plans for giving and receiving gifts this holiday season and in the future? What are your personal gift principles? What are gifting-strategies that you admire and would like to try out?

How to declutter when someone you love has died

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There is a reason that the Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning made such a splash in American culture: a significant portion of us either receive or will leave a lifetime’s worth of possessions for someone else to sort out.

The main challenges of decluttering when someone you love has died are threefold. First, in the state of grief and loss, it’s really hard to untangle our desire to feel connection to that person with wanting to be surrounded by their stuff.

Second, it can be overwhelming for anyone to declutter their own lives. When you add another person’s stuff on top and it can feel impossible to know where to even begin.

Third, we know the stories of our own things and that can lead to us being attached. But with our loved one’s belongings sometimes we won’t know what things are or if our loved one valued them, so we will assign value and importance to everything.

If you or someone you care about is dealing with this now, please know we are sending you a big hug, that we are so sorry for your loss, and that we believe in your ability to both honor and cherish the memory of your loved one while living in a space that feels light, calm, and supportive to you.

I’ve been thinking over this subject a lot but it was a question that came in from a reader that inspired me to get this is all out. Below I’ve included a version of the question (removing any personal details for the sake of anonymity) we received and my letter in response.

The most important takeaways are these:

  1. Decide if you’re at a place in your mourning and grief where you are actually ready to begin decluttering. It’s ok if you aren’t. Be kind to yourself and take your time.

  2. Start with your own belongings. This really serves as a warm up. A chance to experience decluttering in a less emotionally challenging area.

  3. Choose a few of your favorite, most treasured items of your loved one. Give these items places of honor in your home and display them in a way that brings you joy and helps you feel connected to your loved one and their memory.

  4. Move into an easier category of your loved one’s belongings. This will ideally be quite small and not emotionally burdensome, like: athletic shoes, tupperware, or office supplies.

  5. Go at a pace and scale that feels right to you. It’s important to stay within the bounds of what feels safe and good to you, and to give yourself a break if you stumble upon something emotionally complicated when you’re not expecting it.

  6. Select an organization (or several) that were meaningful to your loved one or to you and donate their items there. Trying to sell belongings usually extends an already trying process and can feel invalidating when the financial value does not match our emotional experience of the object.

  7. Offer up a few belongings to any interested family members but don’t transfer the burden of decluttering to them or a future generation. This is one of the kindest things you can do for others.

 
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My aunt lived with me for 15 years and she passed away last year. I haven't been able to go through her closet and donate her things because it makes me cry. I also have china, crystal, and silver plate things that my aunt had and also inherited more from her mother and aunt. I also have a lot of craft items, fabric, and various other collections my parents bought me (they’re gone, too). My problem is I don't want to just give away some of these things because they are valuable, but in speaking with an antique dealer, those items aren't wanted. I have no other family so I can't give anything to relatives. I feel so overwhelmed with all my stuff I don't know what to do or where to start. I would follow your directions and start with wardrobe, but I can't do my aunt's clothes yet. Any advice? Thank you in advance for your time and expertise.

Hi there,

First of all, I am so sorry for loss. It makes so much sense that sorting through your aunt’s belongings would be hard. So I guess I would start there, and just encourage you to be kind and gentle with yourself. What you're going through is incredibly challenging and unfortunately very common. We've worked with a lot of clients who've lost parents, spouses, and other family members and it is hands down one of the most challenging projects to undertake.

I'd love to offer up a few pieces of advice or thoughts to mull over. The first would be: do you feel ready to tackle your aunt’s belongings now? It's ok to take your time and to process your grief and return to this later. If, however, you're feeling like you're really ready to make a change and just overwhelmed trying to determine where to begin, read on.

To begin, I'd encourage you to start with your own possessions in a category that will be easy for you. This will be a place where you can get a few big wins, start to make a dent in the amount of stuff you have, and familiarize yourself with the process of letting go. For some people, this could be books (which could then be donated to the local library), while for others it might be kitchenware (which could be donated to an organization that helps to resettle refugees, houses those experiencing homelessness, or helps domestic abuse survivors). Feel free to start really small, like just with athletic shoes or scarves. 

Once you're feeling confident and starting to experience some benefits of letting go you can then make moves into more emotionally complex zones. Before touching any of your aunt's goods, I'd go through and select a few really prized items that you love and remind you of aunt in a happy way. Maybe you'll display a small collection of her necklaces, or a frame a beautiful scarf of hers, or bring four of her best china teacups into your cabinets to use each morning. This will help ensure that your aunt's presence is felt in your home and will give you space to release more items.

You could then move to a tiny category of your aunt's, like bracelets or slacks. Depending on how she liked to dress, those items could be donated to Dress for Success or a local Senior Center or Salvation Army. From there, you can expand into larger or more complex categories, always going at a pace and scale that feels safe and good to you. Usually decluttering gets easier and easier as you go along, but know that grief comes in waves and that you might stumble upon a really tender item when you’re not expecting it. Take the time to process your feelings and honor yourself if and when you need to take a break.

In terms of the items that the antique dealer told you there wasn't a market for, I'm afraid my advice might not be what you are hoping for: let them go. It can be so hard when we've invested money into belongings to simply donate them, but the energy and time and emotional space we take up by trying to sell things at a fraction of their perceived value is ultimately far harder and less rewarding. Instead, I'd select an recipient organization that is important to you or to your aunt and know that these items will be utterly treasured and beloved by people who've not been fortunate enough to have such beautiful things in their life before. Again, I'd suggest one of several organizations that work on housing and helping to create stable, meaningful lives for the vulnerable among us. It might feel really hard as you prepare yourself to let these items go, but once they're gone I think you might be surprised by how much lighter (physically, emotionally, spiritually) you feel in your home. 

We’re here if you have any other questions or would like to work with us directly; many hands can indeed make light work.

Wishing you the best,

Cary

Returning to Simple

Early motherhood, for me, was a fog of overwhelming joy and stunning sleep deprivation.

That sleeplessness extended over half a year. For while my baby was a total joy, a ball of smiles and happiness all day, sleeping multiple hours at a time was, ummm, shall we say "not her strength."

This lack of sleep profoundly altered my life. Certainly in all of the predictable ways like drinking too much coffee, experiencing "heightened" emotional states (ask my husband about this...actually, don't), and craving every carbohydrate in the world. But being so soooo tired also dramatically reduced my willpower and focus to follow through on certain behaviors that had previously seemed effortless.

I knew in having a baby that things would change, some of my old standards would have to give... I was, however, surprised by how quickly older, more insidious habits came racing back.

I knew in having a baby that things would change, some of my old standards would have to give. The kitchen might not be totally tidy before bed each night. I would probably not do laundry until I was faced with the very last pair of underwear in my drawer. Maybe the dog wouldn't get his breakfast until mid-morning some days. 

I was, however, surprised by how quickly older, more insidious habits came racing back, e.g. online shopping.

To be clear: shopping online for the necessities of a newborn whose needs are urgent and continually evolving is something I can stand behind. If there was ever a time to stay in your jammies and let the stuff come to you, it's when you have a colicky infant in the middle of winter.

My little ball of joy.

My little ball of joy.

But once I got back into the habit of shopping, my definition of necessity started to slide. The one type of pacifier that will let your baby sleep in several hour stretches? Necessary. But what about the couple of extra cloth diapers to help you eek another day out your laundry? Or baby wash clothes (bamboo! organic!)? Or that amazing teether that everyone swears by?

It is SO easy to shop online. Case in point: "one-click" shopping. This is why, when I became a new minimalist, I gave it up almost entirely. If you don't have your defenses up, your blinders on, and your wits about you, you too might end up ordering an infant sized black robe, large bib necklace, and "I Dissent" pin in April. You know, just in case.

But you get how I fell for this, right? image //  via . 

But you get how I fell for this, right? image // via

The other thing I've found about being a new parent is that I am constantly humbled. My body grew an entire human and I also sometimes leave my car keys in the refrigerator. So I honor what I'm coming through, grant myself some grace, acknowledge that I was doing the best I could. 

My little sister taught me a while back that instead of saying "I don't have time" try saying "It's not a priority." Because in reality we do have time for the very most important things. If, when you say, "it's not a priority" about something that statement feels bad and untrue? Well then it's time to make some adjustments.

For me, getting back to my simpler, slower, more mindful life is a priority. Both for me and to model for my daughter.

6 Ways to Stay Simple and Sane With a Newborn

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The first thing people ask when they find out that I've just had a baby is "How is trying to be a minimalist with a newborn?" 

Some people are undoubtedly waiting for me to admit how much harder it is to be a minimalist once you have a family (which it is and it isn't), craving a little hit of schadenfreude imagining me weeping under a pile of blinking, talking plastic toys. Others are genuinely hoping for any advice or tips I might have to help them deal with their clutter. 

Since my daughter is still so very new and I am so very new at being a parent, I won't even pretend to have it figured out (the first thing I learned as a parent is just how little I know about parenting:). But I can share what is working for our family right now as we attempt to stay simple and sane with a newborn.

 

1) Don't buy ahead of time.

Don't try to buy things now that you anticipate needing later. There are two reasons for this. One, your child might surprise you with the number of preferences and variety of needs they have from the get-go. For example, your daughter might not like the orthodontic approved, top of the line, European rubber pacifier you got her no matter what you try. This also applies to swaddles, swings, diaper brands, as well as material of onesies. You don't know if he or she will run hot or cold, if they'll be a spitter or not, if they'll have a million diaper blowouts or only poop once every few days. Its helpful to observe your baby and see where she naturally leans before investing time and money acquiring new baby gear.

Second, your own preferences and needs will evolve and perhaps surprise you as well.  I, for example, didn't realize that I would only like onesies with snaps as opposed to zippers. Zippers seemed so much easier. But then Lark was born in the heart of winter and snapping onesies allowed her top half to stay dressed and swaddled during cold middle of the night changes. Happy baby, happy parent.

2) Borrow.

Here's the thing about newborns and infants: besides for pooping or spitting up, they do very little to wear out their belongings. Blankets, toys, swings, or clothing can be passed on a dozen times before they fully wear out. Lark is wearing clothes that were purchased for my oldest nephew six years ago and are still going strong five cousins later. Don't have a big family to beg from? Don't worry! Most parents I know are happy to lend out or giveaway items that their kids are finished with. Let people know that you are looking and I promise what you need will appear.

3) For bigger ticket items, try to buy it used.

There are some larger items that you can reasonably anticipate needed and that are harder to temporarily borrow friends because of size or cost like: a car seat, stroller, crib, or carrier. Most of these items are readily available secondhand if you give yourself time to lo cate them. Even here in Boise, I was able to find most large items we needed on our local craigslist, nextdoor and letgo. If you're in a major US city like San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, or New York, there is a good chance you can find every single thing you need right in your neighborhood!

4) Wait a few days...

It can be hard to know with a baby if they are entering a new phase with new needs or simply had a one-off experience. For example, if your baby had a terrible night of sleep and then slept like an angel in her daycare's rock'n'play, you will probably want to run out and buy one right now! But instead of immediately assuming that you need an object, give yourself and your kiddo a day or three to see if it was a one-time event, a super brief phase, or a longer lasting need.

5) ...But when you really, really need it, get it any way you can.

There is an urgency to having a new baby. They wake up SO hungry every couple of hours. They sleep in brief segments. Days turn into 8 or 10 or 15 cycles of eat, burp, change, sleep. If there is something that you realize you really need and you can't borrow or wait to find used, go get it. Be kind to yourself. Especially if it's related to a key basic need like eating or sleeping. For example, our daughter had terrible reflux early on and I learned at 6 weeks that a wedge pillow could fit under her co-sleeper and help her feel better, keep her food down, and get some sleep. I ordered that badboy on amazon about 10 seconds after a friend texted me about it. And to be completely honest, had Amazon offered a "within the hour" drone drop off in exchange for giving my social security number to Russian bots, I would have considered it. Desperate times:)

6) Pay it forward. 

When Lark was a few weeks old and I was debating ordering every type of swaddle in existence to find one that worked, a friend with a toddler brought over a couple for us to try out. She then almost off-handedly but earnestly said, "Before you buy anything, just text me. If we have it I'll bring it over." It was a small gesture but it saved me on numerous occasions. Not just from buying stuff we didn't need, but it also made me feel seen and supported and like there were people looking out for us. We in turn now have a number of friends with kiddos set to arrive at any moment with whom we've offered our grab bag of various pacifiers, an infant swing, birth-recovery icepacks and medications, and beginning-to-breastfeed herbs. But most importantly we've been sure to let them know that we're here if they need anything: swaddles, soups, or just to know someone close by has their back. Because as Zac Efron so wisely stated in High School Musical, we're all in this together.

We have a number of friends with kiddos exactly our daughters age and a few who are set to arrive at any moment. One friend said, and this was amazing, "before you buy anything, just text me and if we have it I'll bring it over." Something as small as that, and letting people know you really mean it, is amazing. We, in turn, have shared with friends our grab bag of various pacifiers, an infant swing, as well as birth-recovery and beginning-to-breastfeed herbs, medications, and various sundries.