Friday, 3 June 2011

Thoughts on Simplicity


I was reading the "We Live on a Boat" blog the other day.
They had a post about living simply with a link to another blog about a young woman who had given up her job and home to buy a sailboat and practice simple living.

She in turn had a link to another girl who is living in her van in a effort to opt for a simpler life.

All these people and their ideas of what was and wasn't simple living got me thinking about my own experience. Now first off, I have to admit that I am thrift store addict and a serial pack-rat. Neither of these two attributes bodes well for me. My biggest claim to fame so far, is that I have not paid more than $350 a month for rent the last 10 years in six different locations in the most expensive city in Canada.

I guess first of all you have to define your idea of living simply. Is it living with very little possessions? Is it using very little energy resources? Is it having no technology, very few responsibilities, or is it making everything from scratch?

I have had a number of occasions to simplify my life in the last 10 years. Basically my philosophy has been "if there is room, fill it full of stuff". I am a master of tucking things away and like a seasoned magician, can vanish many truckloads of stuff into a stunningly small space.

My first downsize from was from a huge house where I had a basement studio for a clinic as well as two stories upstairs filled to the rafters. It wasn't too painful. I moved into an apartment and just deleted all the multiples of things that I had, kept the best stuff,and donated things I rarely used. I had moved a block away from two malls with all the shopping I needed and three blocks from my clinic. I was able to walk everywhere, recycle in the garbage room and work part time from the apartment. That was a sweet deal. The place was small but very well laid out with everything you could want, in-suite laundry, dishwasher, balcony, small storage room and enough space in the living room for me to set up my massage table when needed.

Life shifted for me when the medical plan stopped covering massage therapy and I was forced into bankcrupcy. I closed my clinic and went to work for a summer at a fishing resort in the wilderness. My thought was I would bring what I needed to entertain myself indefinitely, leave it there over the winters and go travelling. With that in mind I packed wayyyyy too much stuff to take with me. All my massage gear, craft supplies, a couple of hundred of my favorite books, a bookcase to store them, a desktop computer, a huge teachers desk, my favorite mattress and bedding, on and on. I showed up with a good size truckload of stuff. I was so embarrassed when I saw everyone else with just a duffel bag of stuff. I got it all in my room anyway and enjoyed playing with it. The job unfortunately didn't work out and I had to take it all out again at the end of the summer. If I had known that, I would have brought less, but enjoyed having it all regardless.

The resort produced its own power from a turbine in the nearby waterfall. They had a state-of-the-art system that purified the black and grey waste water back into pure drinking water. All the buildings were built on floats or stilts so there was no damage done to the surrounding land. All garbage/recycling was taken back to civilization for disposal on a regular basis during the weekly shopping expedition. TV, Internet and communication in general was accessed through a satellite dish and radio phones. All our food was cooked from scratch. Homemade bread, desserts, gravies, sauces, ice cream, you name it, nothing pre-packaged at all. Activities included non-polluting things such as:kayaking, hiking, rafting, catch and release fishing, rock climbing, spelunking(exploring caves)and swimming.

It was awesome to live like that. Such a healthy place and lifestyle. It still had all the comforts of home but I have to say, they didn't come cheap. That being said , if your going buy a house and install furnaces etc, you might as well make it off the grid as much as possible and save on the hydro bills and the hassles when the power fails. Producing and cooking your own food is a nice choice too if you have the time and space.

I've had the power go out for four days straight in the dead of winter at a time when I wasn't prepared in the least. Not even a candle. That freaked me out to realize I could die in the middle of civilization just because I couldn't use a light switch. I resolved then and there to never be in that position again. I took many courses in primitive living skills. I learned how I could be naked in the woods and still find ways to keep warm, feed, clothed, medicated and entertained. It was liberating to know that I could take care of my basic needs without snivilization's help if need be. Its as simple as a life as you could think of but not necessarily easy. It takes a lot of time and energy to get enough food and nourishment in the wild. Still once you get your basic needs met, somewhere dry to sleep, something warm to wear, a supply of fresh water, the rest of your day is yours to explore and work on things.

Once I was done at the resort, I went travelling to Asia and New Zealand. I ended up travelling around New Zealand for three months in a van with three other people. We towed a medium size trailer filled with gear to set up stalls selling crafts and services at crafts shows. It's funny, when I got to NZ, I arrived with one suitcase, by the time I left I had enough stuff to fill a good size trailer. Most of it was a fairly complete market setup that I had added to as I was working around the country. I left most of it behind thinking I would go back the following summer and do it again, but never did make it back there.

I found it quite liberating to live in the van. I had one suitcase of clothes, some toiletries, a few books and a drum. I stopped at Internet cafes when I wanted to check in with the world. I spent an hour a week in the Laundromat. We had a two burner stove, one large pot, one large frying pan, a kettle and a set of dishes each. We ate twice a day. Dinner was a whole chicken cut up in the pot with chopped potatoes, carrots, onions, celery, some rice and lots of Tabasco sauce. The whole thing was boiled into a chicken stew. Left-overs were added to whisked eggs to make a large omelet for breakfast. Simple but tasty with fresh and dried fruit for snacks. Showers were obtained at local gyms, hotels, campsites, homes of friends or even in rivers. We didn't necessarily stay in all the above places but could often for a small fee or even free be allowed to shower.

New Zealand is quite open to this kind of lifestyle. There are tons of spots in nature that you can use for free with toilets, sometimes showers and no one hassling you for being there. In towns you can park overnight in parking lots, just have to be out by the time the stores open. They usually have washrooms in the parking lots as well. Canada is not so open. Especially in a city, you would have to be quite covert, no hanging around outside in your lawn chair with the doors open and the pop top up. We always sat and cooked outside, putting up a tarp over things if it was raining. You wouldn't get away with that here. Of course all this was possible because it was summertime. Didn't need to stay warm. Could work and eat outdoors, didn't need to pack a lot of winter clothes and blankets,etc. That was about as simple of a lifestyle as Ive ever had. My vehicle was my bedroom, kitchen, transportation, work site, and storage locker. Costs included gas, insurance, repairs, groceries, showers, Laundromat, Internet and restocking of material for the craft markets. My work week was two days long, the rest of the time was mine to explore, travel and study. To bad summer doesn't last year round :(

My next stop was Bali where at one point I stayed with a very poor Balinese family for a week. These people really had next to nothing. A concrete shed with no doors or windows, just gaping holes was their home. No furniture except a cupboard that held the dishes, a few rough beds and a donated TV. The only appliance was a rice cooker. No running water in the house, just one cold water hose going into a rough bath house shared by four other households. No vehicle of any kind, not even a bike. A couple of changes of clothes each, consisting of sarongs. They ate mostly rice with some flavorings and sometimes added homegrown fruit, chickens and pork that were only eaten on special occasions. Now that was a simple lifestyle. Dad worked in the rice fields long enough to earn a bag of rice and a few dollars. Mom kept the area tidy and cooked the rice. They mostly sat around after that. Kind of boring for me, if I couldn't afford decorations, I would have used that time to make something at least.I can't bear an empty space lol.

I came back from Bali feeling very overwhelmed by all my possessions. It felt like I had enough crap to feed three villages for a year. ( I had stored all my belongings in a friends basement while I was off gallivanting for the year) I had huge urges to pack it all up save a mattress and a pot to cook with and donate the lot of it. Then I would waver and figure as I had this huge space to live in, might as well have stuff I already owned, decorating it. My clutter bunny took over and the stuff stayed and got added to over the years.

Then came the boat. Again a major downsizing was in order. I have to admit, a part of me wasn't ready to let go of all the wonderful things that had been a part of my life. I stored all my things I might need someday to work and my favorite ornaments and three thousand books in the basement of my old house. I gave a lot of large furniture items to David to furnish his float home with the understanding that "some day" if and when I ever got a bigger space I would take them back. I did manage to let go of four or five van loads of stuff that got donated or recycled. The rest found its way onto the boat.

For a year I lived with sketchy utilities, a teeny tiny fridge, microscopic storage space and the equivalent of an outhouse. I hauled water and chopped wood. I stumbled over my dishes trying to find room to cook. I made various trips to my storage to pull out seasonal things as they applied. Trying to have exactly what I needed without having too much. My three main complaints were, no room for all the tools needed to live on a boat, no room to cook, no room in the fridge for food once all the condiments were accounted for. I don't know how to make those needs much smaller without compromising too much. Also the fact that my job here is massage and winter living requires alot more clothing, I spend a lot more time and money at the Laundromat than I did in NZ.

So I have tried the simple life in many forms; downsizing belongings, working very little, living in tiny places, living off the grid. They all have their charms and disadvantages. I'm still trying to decide what is the minimum amount of stuff I need to live a semi-comfortable life. It seems enough to say , well really all I need is a bed and a pot, but then the rest of your life insidiously tries to sneak in. "Well of course I should have the laptop, and then might as well have the camera and cell phone. And what about those cute dressy shoes in case I ever get a real date? Might as well bring my drum in case I get invited to a jam and better have something to read in case I get bored and".............well you get the idea. I still have a mountain of stuff and an addiction to fossil fuels. Some days my life is simpler than others.

PS. here is my "simple life packing list for travel" ( this is for hot climates only)

I took only this with me for a 6 month trip

1 pair of long pants that convert into shorts
2 pairs of shorts
4 cotton long sleeve blouses
4 undershirts/tank tops (I don't like to wear bras)
4 underwear
2 pairs of socks
1 pair of light weight hiking boots
1 pair sandals (something like Tevas, waterproof, strap on, some arch support)
- good for walking in dodgy water or wearing in public bathing areas)
1 sarong ( has a multitude of uses- skirt, dress, blanket,sheet, beach blanket, privacy curtain, quick drying towel,or turned into a carry-all)
1 bathing suit
1 fleece Hoodie
1 lightweight rain poncho with a hood
1 Australian Style, lightweight foldable ,waterproof hat
1 pair of sunglasses

I wear the pants,an undershirt,blouse,hoodie and boots on the plane,everything else goes in a carry-on small backpack

A small flat camera, ipod and headphones, a journal, my bankcard, credit card, some US dollars, photocopies of all my documents/tickets, a doorstop( use this to jam your door from the inside to prevent break-ins while sleeping), a flat plastic sink plug, a small travel clothesline, my makeup bag, first aid kit,face cloth and small sample size toiletries take up the rest of the space.

*Note on the first aid kit contents( This is what I took for an extended trip to Asia. I could buy bandages etc as needed, but brought medications I wasn't sure I would find there, and things I could self- medicate with to avoid costly trips to the Dr in a foreign country)

-A couple of sterile packaged syringes ( if you need to get a shot, a lot of 3rd world countries reuse their needles, best to bring your own)

-Tube of aloe vera gel for burns

-Advil ( anti-inflammatory)

-Arnica gel for bruises and sprains

-Tube of polysporain (cuts and scrapes)

-Moleskin for blisters ( I love this stuff)


-Tums with Calcium ( I'm prone to heartburn/ulcer attack occasionally, calcium calms it as quick as prescription meds)

-Anti-diarrhea aid

- A small container of activated charcoal ( this is awesome for any kind of poisoning, venomous bite etc)

-Deet bug spray ( I didn't want to take meds for Malaria as Dengue Fever was also prevalent and there is no prevention or cure for that. Best to avoid the mosquito's in the first place, so long sleeves and bug spray for me)

-A prescription for antibiotics for a bladder infection and some acifidofolous(this is hard as they should be kept refrigerated. Hopefully you can find some where you are, as needed, or have access to live cultured yogurt) to counter the yeast infection you might get from the antibiotics.

- Condoms ( a lot of Asian countries sell cheap, poor quality condoms, if there is any chance at all you might be needed condoms, I highly recommend you bring your own)

I carry a large canvas tote on board with me that has a book to read, a water bottle,a small pillow, a light weight blanket,1 pair of lightweight cotton pajamas, earplugs and an eye mask.

When I get on the plane, I change into the pajamas in the bathroom, get out my pillow and blanket, put on my eye shade and earplugs and try and sleep my way through the flight. Just before landing, I change back into my boarding gear which is still nice and fresh and not slept in.

I did one small load of laundry every 4th or 5th day often by hand in the sink. When I finished reading a book, I would trade it in a local used book store for another. I could carry on board all my stuff so could always keep an eye on it and carry it easily through town. It made for easy, carefree travel. If I couldn't control myself and did too much shopping, I would mail the stuff home to myself on the slow boat. It was cheaper and I had time to travel and get home before it showed up.

I went on a trip to England for a month another time. It was in the spring when the weather could and would be anything from blazing hot to quite cold to pissing rain. I tried to pack light but with having to pack for three different climates I didn't fair so well. It was a serious pain dragging two suitcases through the London Underground for miles. Never Again! Tahiti here I come!
Bon Voyage!!

How would you define simplicity? How have you tried  to simplify your life?

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  1. Great post R! I have to keep my gear down at times and couldn`t agree more with your choices, I`ll let you know what I take to Paris for the Friday skate around :o)) should I ever get that far? maybe I would add my parachute silk hammock

  2. Which of course I could use as a sarong too?

  3. Funny you mention bringing a hammock of all things. I almost added that to the list as I have one that folds up to the size of a pocket, but I thought that sounded too much like a luxery. I use the sarong for a multitude of things. It can be a light weight towel, a beach blanket, a skirt, a sheet to sleep under, tied into a bag to carry stuff etc. A very versatile piece of fabric.

  4. Living on a boat will never equate with simplicity. Quite the contrary. To me it means:
    Adaptability, ingenuity and a tremendous amount of self discipline to stay on top of the plethora of stuff on a day to day basis?

    Never simplicity.

  5. Ha Tana, I couldn't agree with you more. I have to admit, I didnt have a clue what I was getting myself in for when I took on my boat. I was still under the impression that I could fix a few things and then sit back watching the sunset over the river drinking mai-tais.

    Ha what a dreamer. The reality is harsh by comparison. By the time you get to the end of the list( and I wonder if anyone ever really has) you have to start back at the beginning and do it all again. Things break down, wear down, get destroyed, fall apart, go missing, maintenance is a constant factor.

    Then there is the effort of living in cramped quarters. I have never mastered the Zen look of an empty room with one dead branch in the corner. Living on my boat requires a diploma in packing techniques. Luckliy I have one so can store an incredible amount of stuff onboard, but it takes alot of time and effort to dig something out and put everything away again. You have to stay on top of the chores and be almost anal in tidyness if you want to be able to move about your space.

    I have to shop more often, carry stuff further from the car,spend more time dealing with my heating issues (chopping wood, starting fires,filling propane tanks etc) and dont get me started on life at a marina and all the disasters and dramas that come with that lifestyle.

    No I wouldnt say there is anything simple about living on a boat,unless by simple you mean doing without or working hard. That being said, its an invigorating lifestyle. Ive never felt more alive, more challenged to think outside the box, and more proud of myself every time I solve a problem. Its also a community like no other, where we have to look out for each other like people used to.

    And if by chance you do manage to catch a few minutes at the end of the day, you cant beat the scenery and wildlife as you sit and enjoy a well- earned cold drink.

  6. Thats for sure! I have just paid my mooring fees £4,300-00 Eugh? lift out and antifoul, power is extra, and insurance, and, and, and! :o)) and I don`t live on mine anywhere full time,sadly :o((

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The Eclectic Ark