the poetry of less

I suppose the craze for minimalism and simplicity has taken over the national consciousness:  it’s even poetry now (if, in fact, you think that poetry impinges on the national consciousness):

From Kay Ryan, America’s poet laureate*:

Meaning: once
You’ve swept
the shelves
of spoons
and plates
you kept
for guests,
it gets harder
not to also
simplify the larder,
not to dismiss
rooms, not to
divest yourself
of all the chairs
but one, not
to test what
singleness can bear,
once you’ve begun.

I have my dad to thank for this – he’s an excellent source of eclectic references that he finds all around the internet (and from his whimsical interest in some things that were called “bookes” back in the 20th century, I think).

I haven’t been a big proponent of minimalism or frugality on this blog.  I’m much more concerned – at least in practice – with the idea of making more money rather than saving it.  But three things have happened to me – some recently, some over the last few years – that have made me turn more and more often to the idea of minimalism/frugality.

1.  Peace of mind.

This one is tied almost completely to the type of person you are.  I know plenty of people who love their things.  I’m not saying that in the dismissive sense of “oh she loves her TV.”  No, some people enjoy the warmth that is created by a house full of books, or a house full of pictures or cozy decor.  I get it, I do, and I love it in small doses.  That having been said, it’s not for me.  I like openness and clean spaces.  I spent about a year deeply interested in feng shui, and although I couldn’t say my house is completely aligned with the principles of feng shui, I have found that some of the ideas made me feel…well…better.  Having a clear space that “flows” makes me feel more peaceful, and that makes me feel better spiritually, mentally and physically.  I believe most Americans suffer from clutter:  I haven’t seen many people with houses that aren’t cluttered, and I’d argue that the clutter tends to depress.  I’m sure it doesn’t all of the time – but my own feeling is that fewer things tend to promote a calmer environment.

2.  Simplicity.

I spent today clearing out my inbox.  There’s a metaphor there for almost all of your life; there are many, many things we need to do, want to do and have to do, and how we prioritize them and get them done makes a large difference in our lives.  My normal desire is to keep things moving along as efficiently as possible:  if something needs to be done, do it, if it has to be done, do it at once, and if I want to do it I should create goals and tasks to make it happen as soon as possible.  Sadly, my inclination is in no way reflected in my behavior; I’ll spend five days avoiding an unpleasant “need to do” task, for example.  I like to think that avoiding the unpleasant tasks will help me avoid conflict, but it doesn’t – it makes one conflict (the unpleasant task) into two:  the task and the avoidance of the task.  Minimalism – at least in terms of what it means to me regarding task and goal management – means keeping a short to-do list.  If you have something to do, do it.  Don’t sit on it and wait; there is nothing in the world that is improved by waiting.  I’m sure someone will prove me wrong, but I think learning to accomplish things as quickly as you can will make you a happier – and simpler – person.

3.  Being green.

I have written about this before, but there are significant  conflicts between being environmentally conscious, frugal, healthy and making life convenient – i.e. stress free – in many ways.  Each one of these aspects matter.  I know, for example, that paper towels are bad.  They create waste.  They aren’t frugal.  Yet they are invaluable for health (and before you naysay that, think: little kids).  They make life convenient: Bubelah and I might have spent hours and hours washing rags and countless more hours (and dollars) buying detergent and doing laundry.  I almost think – despite how loathsome it sounds to me to say this – that parents of small kids deserve a pass for a few years on the environmental question.  Even as I write that it looks ridiculous, but in my case it was the truth.  I do my best to be green, but when it came to wiping poopy butts?  I overused the wipes.  I admit it.

But as I’ve grown to admire simplicity more and more I’ve realized that a lot of it is tied into the concept of environmentalism.  Not just the standard “greenness” that’s derided by many, but the simple approach:  can I avoid buying things I don’t really need?  If I can wipe the countertops with a bit of vinegar and water, is it really so hard to avoid “green” cleaning sprays?  If we can buy things in bulk and cut down on packaging, who’s hurt?  And so on.


Really I just want to be simple and free of clutter – is that so wrong?  If it happens to intersect with other trends like concern for the environment and frugality – and I believe right now they are just trends and won’t be remembered once times are better – is that wrong, either?  I’ve found that nothing makes me happier than simple, with the one possible exception of the online/computer world (where I relish the challenge of dealing with complex technical challenges).  Simple’s more than frugality, or minimalism or even being green.  It just means adjusting yourself to what makes you – and the people who have to live with you – just happy enough to get on with their lives without interference.

It seems like a good way to live.  As I try to continue to search for defining principles for my own life in terms of wealth, career, family, spirituality and plain old living, cutting out the unnecessary seems like a good place to start – across the board.

*Note:  I hope Ms. Ryan doesn’t mind, but I reprinted the poem in its entirety, since I thought it would lose some punch if I didn’t.  You can buy a collection of her works here: The Best of It: New and Selected Poems.

4 Replies to “the poetry of less”

  1. Life is all about saying goodbye. The older I get, the less difficult it is to part with things–homes I loved, a favorite, car, pictures that get damaged or lost, a comfy chair that’s irreparable, books lent and never returned. Although I still love some of my “stuff,” I don’t feel anguished when it leaves me, whether through loss or voluntarily. Maybe that’s a function of being older–you realize that it’s only the people in your life that really matter.

  2. A couple of years ago, I borrowed my brother’s dump truck and threw out three tons of stuff. My wife wasn’t very happy about this. But, our house is so much nicer now. It is free of clutter and much more relaxing. I am so glad we got rid of the stuff we never used.

  3. Thank you for this post. I’m with you in that I haven’t completely bought into the whole minimalism craze, but I have been reading about it all over the blogosphere. I like the idea of simplicity (so did Thoreau!) and being clear of clutter. I agree that it brings a certain peace of mind.

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