In Defense of Minimalism: Some Responses to Criticism

felted crocheted hearts

Author’s note: I wrote this post about a year ago, but never published it because I couldn’t wrap it up tidily with a neat conclusion. Buuuut considering the sudden and recent renewed interest in decluttering thanks to Netflix’s new Tidying Up series, I thought I’d go ahead and publish it as it is. Let me know what you think!

I’ve been coming across a bit of criticism of minimalism lately.

I’ve written a fair amount on the subject in the past, so I always perk up when I hear it mentioned.

And almost every time I hear it criticized, one of the first thoughts I have is, “That’s not my understanding of minimalism.”

So I thought I’d take a look at some of these critiques and offer some counterpoints.

But first off, a definition and some clarifications.

“Minimalism” can be used to define a certain kind of aesthetic as well as a lifestyle. They do not necessarily overlap.

Minimalism as an aesthetic is generally recognized by pared down design elements. Most people conjure up mental images of monochromatic colour schemes, clean lines, bare walls, and a perfectly-matching “capsule wardrobe.” Lots of neutral colours, white paint, and sparse decor. Simplicity.

Minimalism as a lifestyle (at least as far I understand it) means intentionally choosing to own fewer possessions. It means paring down to what is essential in life, and getting rid of excess. It’s about letting go of whatever isn’t serving you. This can look different ways for different people.

Like I said, I don’t think these two forms of minimalism necessarily go hand-in-hand. I think you can practice minimalism while still adorning your house and body with lots of colour and flourish.

I don’t have much to say about minimalism as an aesthetic. Some people find it boring. Some people find it calming and refreshing. My response is, That’s totally subjective, and You do you. I like certain things about it, but you definitely wouldn’t walk into my house and immediately say, “Ahhh — you guys are minimalists!”

I’ve written before about what I think are the merits of a minimalist lifestyle, so I won’t go much into it here. In short, I think minimalism can bring freedom, and is generally good for our (mental, physical, and spiritual) health, as well as the planet.

Below are a couple of critiques I’ve recently heard regarding minimalism, and some of my thoughts on them.

October leaves

“Minimalists think they’re better than everyone else.”

I found this complaint in an article entitled, “Minimalism: another boring product wealthy people can buy.” The author writes,

There are a million variations [of minimalism] – fitting all your belongings into a single box, small-house or van living, radical de-cluttering, extreme purges of technology or social activity, etc – but they all hold the same vague, usually unspoken level of superiority.

She later elaborates,

They all imply that they are in some way a moral upgrade from the life of ‘mindless consumerism’… This spiritual minimalism has essentially become yet another competition for who can be the best at whatever you’ve chosen, even if that ‘whatever’ is literally ‘having less shit.’

Okay. So: do minimalists think they’re morally superior? Well, sure, some of them probably do. Maybe even lots of them. But isn’t every subculture susceptible to this kind of snobbery? Even ones that are supposedly based in humility, like Christianity? I’ve heard people complain about the same kind of thing from vegans, democrats, globetrotters, health/fitness fanatics, academics, and artists.

And they’re probably right — to a degree. It’s a problem you’ll find within just about any group, whether it’s centered around a certain philosophy, career path, political affiliation, lifestyle, or religion. We choose these paths because we think they have merit. We think they’re good. And within any subculture, some people are going to be snobs about it.

You can be pretentious about your lifestyle choices or you can be humble about them, whatever they may be.

I’ve heard people be smug and moralistic about their literary tastes. I’ve heard people humblebrag about where they choose to live (i.e. rural vs urban setting). I’ve heard them speak paternalistically about how they spend their money (“Ahem… We value experiences over things”). I’ve even heard people argue haughtily about whose income is further below the poverty line.

I’ve also known some truly humble minimalists, who just don’t want to be caught up in materialism, and are using minimalist principles to make ends meet.

There’s nothing inherently pompous about choosing minimalism — no more than anything else.

And have I ever been douchey about minimalism? Yeah… probably. Sorry about that. I’m a human, and was born desperate for love and validation. I’m trying to do better.

felted wool bowl

“Minimalism is just for rich people.”

I’ve been hearing this one a lot lately. In the article I quoted above, the author argues that “the only people who can ‘practice’ minimalism in any meaningful way are people upon whom it isn’t forced by financial or logistical circumstances.” In other words, poor people don’t have the freedom to choose minimalism. They already don’t have enough. Therefore minimalism is only for the privileged.

She further points out that

Being minimalist in this way […] really just means having enough upfront disposable money to “invest” in your wardrobe and surroundings. Reducing a wardrobe down to a few painfully elegant cashmere-cotton blend tops is only really possible if you can put down at least $1,000 in one go for the creation of your “capsule wardrobe.”

She concludes that “Minimalism is just another form of conspicuous consumption, a way of saying to the world: ‘Look at me! Look at all of the things I have refused to buy!’”

There is definitely some merit to this argument.

Yes, minimalism requires a certain amount of privilege. Truly impoverished and marginalized people don’t have to resources or social capital to “konmari” their homes.

As this article, entitled “The Problem with Minimalism,” explains: “Minimalism is largely something only well-off people can afford to pursue, because their wealth provides a cushion of safety. If they get rid of something, and then need it later, they’ll just buy it again. They don’t need to carry much else besides a wallet when they’re out and about; if they need something, they’ll just buy it on the fly. No sweat. If you’re not so well-off, however, having duplicates of your possessions can be necessary, even if such back-ups ruin the aesthetics of owning just 100 possessions. “

These are great points.

But you don’t have to be wealthy to choose to pare down your possessions or to choose to live with less than your neighbours.

You don’t have to buy one pair of $200 jeans so you can turn up your nose at the rest.

You can totally be a minimalist who shops at thrift stores.

In fact, I’ve found that minimalism has made it easier to live on a budget.

And part of the reason I know this is because I’ve heard so many lower-middle-income people say that minimalism has actually helped them live on a budget. Striving to own fewer possessions makes it easier to get by on less.

My own family lives on an income below the poverty line, and minimalism helps make that possible.

It’s partly because I don’t have a huge wardrobe, or buy the kids a ton of toys, or own a lot of electronic devices, that we can afford to survive on one small income.

tulips

“Minimalism isn’t Christian because it’s focused on the self.”

I heard this criticism come up on a podcast that I actually really love, called The Upside Down Podcast. The hosts attempt to differentiate between minimalism and “downward mobility.” “Downward mobility,” they argue, is a lifestyle choice focused on the well-being of others. Minimalism, by contrast, is just about improving your own life and your own well-being, so it’s not inherently Christian.

However, I think this contrast is based on a false dichotomy between helping yourself and helping others. I don’t think these two things are necessarily mutually exclusive. Sometimes, helping yourself is also good for the people around you.

Choosing minimalism for your own benefit is not like greed, wherein your help yourself at the expense of someone else.

I think practicing minimalism can be mutually beneficial, to you and the people around you. Of course, minimalism is not automatically or inherently helpful to the people around you; but I think if done well and with the right spirit, it can benefit others beyond yourself.

If you pare down your possessions to the things you actually need and use, you can give the excess to people who could make use of those things. Instead of hanging onto things that will just gather dust in your basement, you can share them with people who might actually use and appreciate them.

Less clutter in your own life can also bring you more peace, time and energy, that you can then share with others.

So do I think minimalism inherently Christian? Well, no, of course not. You can be a minimalist and a totally self-centered douchecanoe. And you can totally be a Christian without practicing minimalism.

But greed, by contrast, definitely is NOT Christian, and I think minimalism can be a very useful tool to fight against greed.

Some of the central tenets of Jesus’ message include generosity, sacrifice, sharing, and equity. His gospel is about lowering yourself and lifting others up.

I personally think minimalism aligns with that message, if it is done with a spirit of generosity and love.

* * *

So these are just a few of my thoughts when it comes to criticism of minimalism.

What do you think?

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What’s Saving My Life Right Now

frost

Hi, friends! I thought I’d pop in today to share some positivity: here are six things that are making life better for me these days.

1. Antidepressants for my preschooler.

This past October we hit a wall with Felix’s sleep. He was nearing four years old and still not sleeping through the night — in fact, it was just getting worse. he was up 3-5 hours every night and it was taking its toll on the whole family. We were all miserable and barely functioning. So I finally took him to his pediatrician and said, “HELP.”

She looked into my bloodshot eyes and decided to prescribe him an antidepressant that causes drowsiness as a side effect. I’m about as anti-drug as you can get but I was desperate and willing to try anything. We started giving it to him every night before bed.

His sleep has improved immensely since then. He almost always sleeps until at least 4:30 am; and when he does wake up at night, he usually falls back asleep within an hour.

Everyone is happier, including Felix.

2. Respite care for my preschooler.

felix and me

In my mid-October desperation I also reached out to our family coordinator who had helped us apply for funding for respite care for Felix earlier in the year. The application had been accepted months earlier, but we’d been informed that there was an unusually long waiting period for the funding to actually kick in. Like, up to a year’s wait.

The coordinator sensed the desperation in my voice and applied for some temporary, private funding to hold us over until the government funding could take over.

So now we have funding for six hours of respite care a week. His worker picks him up to go to her house, and for six hours a week I can spend time focusing on Lydia’s homeschooling, or housecleaning, or even on myself. When he comes home I am refreshed and happy to see him. It’s been pretty glorious.

3. Crafting.

You guys have seen me take up crocheting and then knitting and then watercolour painting. And over the last year I’ve also become obsessed with calligraphy.

A week or two ago my mom asked me if I would do some hand-lettering on some wood discs she’d cut up in my dad’s shop and I happily obliged. And I was so pleased with the results I started making some for friends and then I started to offer them for sale on social media to local friends.

Before I knew it, I was getting Ben to slice up branch after branch and drill and spray my little creations as I pumped out more hand-lettered ornaments. It was kind of taking over my life. And I LOVED every minute.

I really don’t have time for this nonsense. And I only made enough money to cover costs plus a little extra so I could buy even more to my craft supplies, but it was so satisfying to be creative. Crafting just makes my life better.

I feel most like myself when I’m making beautiful things.

4. Walter Geoffrey the Frenchie.

walter

Guys, I’m not really into pet Instagram accounts. But a few months ago I stumbled upon WalterGeoffreytheFrenchie and . . . just . . . WOW. Have you seen this guy?? Oh my goodness. He gives me life. He’s an adorable but opinionated French bulldog with an incredibly unique . . . I’m gonna say, voice? Nothing perks me up like Walter’s bizarre, one-of-a-kind screaming.

Watch this video to get a taste of his personality if you haven’t already met Walter. And then follow his Instagram. If you’re feeling down in the dumps, I promise he will cheer you up.

5. Pentatonix Christmas music.

To add to the list of things I’m not really into: Christmas music. I’m generally just not a fan.

But I love Pentatonix Christmas music. I love a cappella in general, and I specifically love the way they infuse new energy into old Christmas songs. And they have like seven Christmas albums. I will happily listen to Pentatonix all December. (I just listen to them on Spotify.) Give them a listen if you haven’t already!

6. The new local shawarma place.

shawarma

Our small, rural, mostly-white town isn’t known for its cuisine. Nobody drives to our town to get dinner (although our Vietnamese restaurant has the best pho in the county). We’ve had a hard time finding a place to get takeout when we want to get dinner on a short notice, and have basically only patronized the local Vietnamese restaurant for the last decade.

But our town recently got a new shawarma place and it is the best. Since we discovered it a month ago we have been getting takeout from there on almost a weekly basis. For $15 we can get a huge shawarma plate containing enough food for both me and Ben — we each get one wrap, plus three delicious sides. It is making me so happy.

That’s about it for now! What’s been saving your life these days?

PS follow me on Instagram to see what I’m up to on a day-to-day basis!

4 Things I Learned This Fall {2018}

Once again, I’m joining Emily Freeman and sharing a few things I learned over the last three months. Wheeee!

1. Puffball mushrooms are edible.

puffball mushroom

Have you ever found one of these quirky mushrooms growing in your back yard or maybe the park? They looks like balls of white bread dough rising at random on your lawn. They have no real stem, they’re just irregular spheres of fungus that grow right out of the ground. They pop up in our back yard every so often, and we always thought they were funny but didn’t think much of them.

Until I stumbled on a Facebook post where people were talking about eating them. I was intrigued and did some googling, and lo and behold: they’re edible! So the next time a bunch of puffball mushrooms appeared in our back yard, we gave them a try!

puffball mushroom chopped

puffball cooked

We picked the biggest ones, and I peeled them, sliced them up (they look like giant marshmallows from the inside!), and fried them in a bunch of butter. They’re really good! They have a very mild mushroom flavour, with a very soft texture — like soft tofu. I liked them best in my red curry. I love eating free food out of my back yard!

2. Red+green=yellow??? A.k.a. Mixing coloured light is completely different from mixing paint.

mixing coloured light

Did you guys know this? I did not know this, and I’m embarrassed that it took me 33 years to learn in.

Growing up, I was taught that there are three primary colours: red, blue, and yellow. You cannot make these colours from any other other colours. All other colours come from these colours. The end. Right?

I was vaguely aware that computers used RBG (red, blue and green) pixels, but that didn’t make any sense because where does yellow come from? Everyone knows you can’t make yellow. Right? It’s a primary colour. EVERYONE KNOWS THAT.

WELL GUESS WHAT. Mixing paint and mixing light are not the same at all. RBY are the primary colours when it comes to solids/liquids, like paint, but light is a different story.

I learned this from Lydia’s second Kiwi Crate, which was all about light. It came with lots of cool things, including little finger lights in red, blue and green. Because when it comes to light, the three primary colours are in fact red, blue and green, and you can create yellow by mixing red and green.

WHAT. I could not believe it until I saw it with my own eyes.

red geen yellow

Mind = blown.

A few weeks later Lydia noticed the same phenomenon in Felix’s new bubble tube, which we got him for his birthday. The LED lights at the bottom change colours to change the colours of the bubbles; and she noticed that yellow bubbles were created with red and green lights:

bubble tube yellowI still can’t believe it. My whole life has been a lie.

3. A Cozy Cabin Getaway in Fall is Quite Nice.

cabin vacation

If you know me at all, you know that I love summer and hate winter, and resent fall just for being the traitor that leads from one to the other. My idea of the perfect vacation involves sunshine and beaches. I want to be barefoot and sipping a cold beer or iced coffee.

But this year, we didn’t manage to plan an anniversary trip until late October. Ben and I ended up renting a cabin a few hours north of where we live, right on the Georgian Bay.

And guys: it was delectable.

The forests were ablaze with amber and orange. Our daily hikes were made more magical by the presence of falling snowflakes. And I thoroughly enjoyed snuggling up on the cabin couch with my knitting and murder mystery novel.

Maybe fall isn’t so bad after all.

4. You can make ink out of black walnuts and dye with weeds (and beans).

I wrote full posts about both of these things, so I won’t go into detail here. But this year I happened to learn a lot about the pigments available to me in my own neighbourhood for creating my own natural inks and dyes.

If you haven’t already read them, here are my posts:

How to make your own black walnut ink:

black walnut ink calligraphyHow to dye wool with plants:

dyeing wool with plants

I never wrote about this, but I also dyed some yarn using black beans! I followed these instructions.

black bean dye

I was going for a blue, but ended up with this lovely lilac colour:

dye wool with black beansStill cool.

All right, that’s it for now! Hope you’ve been having a good autumn! What did you learn this season?