The gift of giving (and what it has to do with minimalism and living simply)

Meet Grace. She’s 15 years old and lives in Uganda. She’s attending secondary school, thanks to a great little charity from the UK called ACE.

UWIMANA GRACEACE stands for Aid Conservation through Education. They are committed to supporting rural primary education in rural Uganda in communities bordering the national parks, believing education is the key to conservation and poverty eradication. Whilst primary education is free in Uganda, parents have to supply pencils, exercise books and uniforms. This is complicated by the fact that many children have been orphaned dues to the AIDS epidemic, so rely on more distant family members to support them. A single class may have more than 200 children, with only one teacher and no teaching materials. Classrooms and other buildings are often in poor condition, and without electricity and safe toilet facilities.  ACE help by providing equipment including books, desks and chairs, and funding repairs and construction of new buildings and latrines.

Back to Grace. She was a pupil at one of the primary schools that ACE support. She was one of the brightest pupils, in fact, but also one of the poorest. To go to secondary school in Uganda you have to pay, and it is unlikely she would have been able to attend… were it not for ACE. In addition to their core work, ACE run a sponsorship program for the brightest and poorest pupils to attend secondary school. Which means that someone like me can pay the fees and expenses so that someone like Grace can attend school.

Their sponsorship scheme is well thought out. ACE realised that pupils who board do better than day pupils, who have to walk long distances between the school and their homes and don’t have time to study in the evenings because of needing to help their families. They decided that all sponsored pupils would board at the school. So in addition to day school fees and equipment, I also pay the boarding fees.

The money they ask for correlates with how much they need to spend in Uganda; £30 a month (around $50). It costs what it costs. If people can’t afford to commit this much, of course they are happy to accept donations for their other projects, just not for the sponsorship programme. If you’re wondering how much it all costs, it is laid out below. Total transparency.

KisoroVisionAdmissionLetterIt’s not a fluffy ‘sponsor a child’ scheme with membership packs and yearly Christmas cards. They only have one paid staff member – in Uganda. They choose their pupils based primarily on exam results but also on the poverty level of the family; not by how photogenic they are or whether they’ll look good in a glossy brochure. They don’t do glossy brochures. Their website may not be flashy, and the children in the photos may not be all smiles and laughter (that we’re used to seeing), but it just makes them more real. After all, if I was 14 years old and leaving my family for the first time, having never been away from home before, and going to a strange new place, I would probably not be all smiles either.

Being part of this means I’m making an actual difference to someone’s life. To Grace’s life. Whilst I don’t know a great deal about Grace (she sends me letters three times a year, but English isn’t her first language), I do know that when she’s not at school she lives with her mother in a temporary house built from mud, poles and metal sheets, with no electricity, no running water and a single paraffin lamp for lighting. They are too poor to own any livestock. I hope her education will open up opportunities for her as an adult.

For me, this is another great benefit of minimalism, or living simply. By not wasting my money buying stuff I don’t need, I can give it to people who can really benefit. I don’t miss the money being taken from my account. I could easily spend that same amount on coffee or chocolate or an evening out every single month and not even notice. When I think about how far such a small amount of money can go, and what a real difference it can make to someone’s life, how could I not want to do something to help?

“No-one has ever become poor by giving.” ~Anne Frank

So…You Want To Be a Minimalist?

Decluttering. Minimalism. They seem to be the new buzz words right now. There’s definitely a shift towards people being more interested in owning less stuff. At the Less is More Festival last week, the Decluttering workshop was full to capacity and there was standing room only. Even with the doors closed, a “workshop full” sign and a volunteer on the door telling people there was no room, people were still fighting to get in!

There’s nothing fun about clutter. It drains our energy, and research has shown that it increases stress and even causes depression. It also takes up time – in cleaning, moving it all around, and searching for the stuff you’re sure you have but can’t quite remember where you put it. Plus there is a monetary cost – in paying higher rent or mortgage repayments for a bigger house, or renting extra storage, just to house that stuff we don’t really need.

So the idea of decluttering seems pretty appealing. So does the idea of getting organised so our houses are no longer boxes with roofs that exist to hold our stuff, but sanctuaries of calm and zen. And minimalism, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

googlesearchminimlaismIf you search for “minimalism” under Google images, this is what comes up. Spacious apartments with clear surfaces, clean lines, neutral tones. Minimalism is also a design style, which helps confuse things a little. But when people talk about being minimalist, they’re not talking about what furniture they buy.

If you really want to be a minimalist, if you really want to have less clutter, there are a few things you need to know.

Things to know about being a Minimalist

1. Minimalism doesn’t mean having amazing storage so all you see is a sea of clear bench tops and surfaces.

Minimalism does not mean you have an incredible capacity to organise. It means having less stuff. Don’t think you can organise your way to minimalism.

2. Minimalism means letting go.

We are natural hoarders. We keep things because we think they might come in useful. We keep things because they remind us of things that happened in our lives. We keep things because we attach emotions to them – we feel guilty about disposing of things that others have given us, even if we don’t actually like or want or need them; or shame at having spent too much money on something we never use.

Maybe we worry about the cost the environment. But if we really want to live with less stuff, we need to look at our relationships with our stuff. We hold memories in our hearts and in our minds, not in boxes stored in the garage. If things no longer serve us, we need to let them go.

3. Becoming minimalist doesn’t happen overnight.

We can’t just decide to declutter and that’s that. It takes time. Some things are easy to let go of, and others are much harder.

Even as we let go of things and give them away, more things come into our life. It is something we need to work on. Maybe it is something we never stop working on. It’s definitely not something we complete over the weekend, and then go back to “normal”.

4. To truly embrace minimalism, we need to look within ourselves.

That may sound a bit new-age, but decluttering and getting rid of stuff doesn’t automatically stop us from desiring things. We are constantly bombarded with adverts telling us our lives will be better if we buy this or that; that we’ll feel happier or more content if only we spend our money with these companies.

As long as we believe this, we’ll continue to buy more.

Think about your happiest memories. Do they involve spending time with friends and family? Do they involve holidays, special occasions, exploring nature, being outdoors? Or do they involve buying the latest gadgets? We don’t need stuff to make us happy.

5. It’s not a competition.

It’s not about who can have the least amount of stuff, it’s about what is the right amount of stuff for each of us at the point of our lives we are in right now. It’s easy to feel like giving up because we know we’ll never be as good as x.

If you’re feeling like you have too much stuff, if you know there’s things in your house that you don’t really need, if the piles of clutter are stressing you out, then you will benefit from letting some of it go.

That doesn’t mean you can’t stop until you only have two outfits left in your wardrobe, and two bowls in the kitchen cupboard. That might work for some people. If it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t matter.

Do what feels right for you.

Reap the Rewards

No-one said it was going to be easy. It’s so much more than just taking a couple of boxes of old junk to the Good Sammy’s. But the rewards are so much more than just having a couple less boxes of stuff, too. Try it and see!

My minimalist living space (I’d like to show you around…)

I often refer to the “tiny apartment” that I live in, and I’ve been thinking for a while that it would be nice to take some pictures and, well, invite you round for a (virtual) look.

But then I didn’t, because the flat was never quite tidy enough. Despite my constant quest to have less stuff, there always seems to be stuff cluttering up the place. It’s not that we have a great deal of stuff, but we also don’t have huge amounts of furniture or cupboard space to hide all our stuff like other people do. It’s a constant reminder to us that we have too much.

Another thing that put me off was that despite me calling our home the “tiny flat”, I realise that it is far bigger than many other “tiny” homes. In fact, there is a tiny house movement, and if you know anything about that you will realise that our flat in no way qualifies. Tiny homes are seriously tiny, and our apartment is palatial in comparison. I didn’t want to face the wrath of readers outraged that I have been making fraudulent claims all this time!

Lastly, I’m well aware that our flat is never going to be photographed for House Beautiful (or whatever those glossy home magazines are called). My eye for style goes as far as to recognise that some decor does indeed look pretty and stylish, and our flat has nothing like that in it.

We don’t have strategically placed cute retro teapots, or a surf board (why is it that every house I’ve seen photographed recently, no matter how far from the ocean, has a surf board?), or candles and flowers in all the corners. We don’t have quirky vintage antique stuff, we have old (and in some cases a bit tatty) stuff.

But then I got a grip on myself, and thought, so what? I like my house. Do I care that my house isn’t a interior designer’s dream? No. I like it. We like its simplicity. I like not having to dust all those quirky vintage nick-knacks.

Does it really matter that our flat isn’t the smallest house ever? Not at all. We are happy with the amount of space we have, so why would I compare it with other far smaller houses? They may be cleverly designed, inspiring and beautiful, but they would be too small for us at this stage in our lives. We need a space that we can live in, not one that impresses others with its tiny-ness.

Does it matter that it’s a bit messy and full of stuff? Well…I’d rather it wasn’t, or course… But we still invite our friends round, so why wouldn’t I take photos and invite my virtual friends round too? It’s just stuff, and it really shouldn’t have the power to influence my decisions!

So here’s the tour. It’s our attempt to live simply with less stuff; we have had some successes, but there are still plenty of areas we’d like to improve. It is a journey, and one that we’re always working on.

The Living Space

When you walk through the front door, you immediately step into the living space. There’s no porch or entrance hall. Our flat is pretty much a square, so from the front door you can see right the way through to the other side.

Livingspacefinal Livingspace2 LivingspaceothersideThere’s no storage aside from what furniture we have, which means lots of things can’t be put “away”, as there is nowhere to put them. My bicycle lives next to the dining table, and our broom sits next to the fridge.

This is our entire book and DVD collection. We don’t own a single DVD, and of this little stack of books, three are actually loans from friends. Who needs books and DVDs when you can borrow what you want from the local library?

Books are a minimalism success; my desk, however, is not. On a typical day, it looks something like this. That’s not to say that I’m not organised, because I actually know what’s on all those little bits of paper and always notice when they get moved. I just have a terrible habit of writing on the back of old receipts and old envelopes, and they accumulate. Mess and clutter are not healthy though, and I need to go paperless to get things a bit more zen in my litter corner of the room.

Messydesk

The Bedroom

It’s a bit more zen in here. There’s no space for any furniture in the bedroom, although we’ve had to squeeze my boyfriend’s bike into the small amount of spare space that we do have.

Bedroom Bedroom2 Fortunately we have an enormous built-in wardrobe…

closetcombined…and it is full to the point of almost overflowing! Yes, we have far too many clothes. No, they’re not all mine! Yes, I do have far too many pairs of shoes. Yes, they are all mine. Definitely an area I need to work on. But progress is being made. I’ve given clothes to the charity shop, and I’ve downgraded others to kitchen rag status. Last year I only bought a handful of items, and so far this year I’ve bought none. I don’t intend to buy anything else until my collection has at least halved. This is my compromise to myself, because I don’t want to send stuff to landfill, and there’s a lot in there that is too worn for the charity shop to take.

The Bathroom

Bathrooms in rented apartments are generally nothing to write home about, and ours is definitely no exception.bathroomsmallThere’s not too much clutter, but we do have a ridiculous amount of towels. (This isn’t even all of them – there were some hanging out on the line when I took the picture!) I’m reluctant to get rid of them; the charity shop won’t be able to sell them for much and I don’t want to send them to landfill. So another compromise – as they wear out they won’t be replaced. Right now, they (just about) fit into the space we have, and so they can stay.

towels

The Kitchen

I would love a bigger kitchen as I spend a huge amount of time here (you may have noticed that I like to cook?!). Learning to manage with what space I have has been hard, but I think it’s been good for me. Oh, and don’t judge us – we rent this flat and did not choose the lime green/acid yellow tiles ourselves!

Kitchen1 Kitchen2I’ve been able to keep the cupboards pretty orderly, and I only keep the things that we use regularly.

The pantry, however, is a different story! No matter what I do, I cannot seem to empty it out. I am pretty good at finding things in there, but my boyfriend does not fare so well, unless he knows there is a jar of chocolate spread… (I also don’t label the jars – surely everyone knows the difference between ground turmeric and ground cumin? Or rapadura sugar and soft brown sugar? They don’t? Oh. No wonder my boyfriend is reluctant to cook!) It’s cluttered, and awkward, and there’s been a few near-misses with almost smashing glass jars. But my love of food (and the bulk produce stores) means it never gets any less full. Any tips greatly appreciated!

PantryThose jars to the left of the pantry are there because they don’t fit in the pantry. Definitely a sign that I have too much in there!

Outside

We have a small space outside, which houses our two worm farms and various gardening-related bits and pieces I collected from verge collections. I then discovered we don’t get any sunlight so we can’t grow anything much here, sadly.

balconySo that’s the tour. I hope you’ve enjoyed looking around. I’d love to hear what you think, and if you have any tips for those areas that I need a bit of help with, please share them below!

Holiday packing: the battle of minimalism vs sustainability

In less than 12 hours, I’ll be on my way to the airport for a month-long break overseas. It’s not my first trip abroad, or course, but it is the first time since I really started embracing the sustainability path. The last time I went overseas I hadn’t taken part in Plastic Free July (or given up plastic), I wasn’t passionate about reducing waste, I’d never heard of simple living and i thought minimalism was a furniture/design style.

Fast forward 18 months, and all of these things have become really important to me. I don’t want my ideals to go out of the window just because I’m going on holiday, although it would be much easier to take a break from all of that too.

I have decided to pack as lightly as I can. Having been on numerous trips where I’ve taken far too much and cussed as I’ve had to haul heavy luggage all about the place, this is something I’ve been working on for years. Read more

Some Recommended Reading

Yesterday afternoon I dropped my parents off at Perth Airport for their flight back to the UK. They visited for just over four weeks, and it has been insanely busy. Partly because they have been staying in our flat, and my boyfriend and I stayed at his parents’ house, which means I have been making the hour-long commute (one way) between houses each day, and then taking them out to see the sights, before trekking back. This was compounded by us sleeping in a bed that was far too small for us (well mostly my boyfriend, whose ankles stick through the railings meaning it is impossible to move without waking us both up), meaning we have been running on minimal sleep. I had a lovely time, and it was great to be able to spend so much time with them, but now they’ve gone I’ve been hit by a tsunami of exhaustion. I’m tired, emotional and mentally frazzled… which wouldn’t matter so much if everything else in my life wasn’t still going full steam ahead.

This isn’t a blog post about woe is me, though. All I need is sleep, time to unwind, the chance to relax and to eat some nourishing meals and I’ll be ready to go again. I’ve had an awesome month; I’m blessed that my parents were able to come to visit, and for such a substantial amount of time. No complaints here : )

In order to get these things though, I need to prioritize my workload. I was really hoping that I’d be able to keep blogging whilst they visited, but unfortunately I didn’t have the time. Now that they’ve gone, I have a number of looming deadlines to address, and that doesn’t include blogging. I really want to write but I don’t have the time to do justice to the millions of thoughts that are whirring away in my mind. I have still had time to read the posts that others are writing, so I thought that rather than write a rushed, garbled post of my own, I’d share some posts I’ve read over the past month that I have enjoyed. I get so much enjoyment/knowledge/motivation/inspiration/etc from the bloggers that I follow and so I wanted to share in the hope that you might enjoy them too. Far better to share inspiration than write a blog post about not writing a blog post – who wants to read that?!

My recommended reading list

  • EcoGrrl wrote a great post about how conventional beauty and advertising sell women the message that they aren’t good enough in order to shift their chemical-containing products. She’s taken so much time to research this and all women should read it:  Tuesday Go Ponder: Redbook’s Bevy of False Claims, Misleading Ads, and Shaming Women. [NB This link has been removed as it now points to a wrinkle-busting scam, and I can’t find the updated link. If you find it let me know!]
  • Journey to Ithaca shared a great post entitled Thoughts on “Rants”. I probably don’t need to explain what this is about. It begins with the line “I used to be a ranter”, and is thoughtful, well written and definitely has a lesson or two in there!
  • Westywrites is starting preparation for Plastic Free July next year early – 8 months early! She has so much energy and passion for the subject – check out Plastic-Free Me: An Introduction if you’re interested in trying to be more plastic-free (or any of her subsequent posts). Her enthusiasm is infectious!
  • I’ve also been following blog posts by A Girl Called Jack, who blogs about feeding a family for less than £10 but is also a campaigner for Oxfam and Child Poverty Action Group. That description doesn’t actually do her any credit – she’s opened my eyes to all kinds of issues, like foodbanks, benefits, poverty in the UK, how completely immoral the Daily Mail is (and I thought I knew this, but no, turns out they are worse than I could ever have imagined). She’s made me question my own feelings and actions regarding food, poverty and sustainability – in a good way – and I’m still processing all my thoughts.
  • Lastly I wanted to share with you Make it Your Job, a blog post considering why we get resentful and angry. It is the most recent post by Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, a minimalist who embraces simple living. I think every post he writes is super inspiring.

Of course there’s many more amazing blog posts and writers out there who I love, but I don’t want to overload you all! I hope you enjoy some (or all) of these posts. I’m off to get on with my to-do list!

Gift-giving, sustainability and minimalism at Christmas

In less than two months, Christmas will be upon us. There are aspects to Christmas that I like. I like being able to spend time with family, to eat great food, and to relax. The bit I’m less keen on is the huge consumer-fest that goes with it. The huge amounts of stuff that get bought, the money that gets wasted, the stuff that gets wasted, the frenzy that comes with having to buy this for that person or that for the other person.

I’m not against presents. I love the idea of finding something perfect for someone, putting some thought in to find something that they didn’t know existed, something that they’ll love and use and enjoy. The thing is, at Christmas that generally isn’t what happens. People write lists, or ask for specific things which other people buy for them. Or maybe the gift-giver is worried about choosing the wrong thing, and so gives money instead. For birthdays this is slightly different but at Christmas the reciprocity of it all makes it a farce. You want a jumper, so someone buys you the one you choose. They want a torch, so you buy them the one they want. You both wrap them up and hand them over. You open the present you chose yourself. Assuming the presents cost the same amount, they effectively cancel each other out. You may as well have bought the jumper you wanted in the first place. Only, would you have actually bought it if it hadn’t been necessary to request a gift, or would you have spent the money on something else?

The older you get, the more quickly Christmas seems to come around, and the harder it is to buy things for people as each year they’ve accumulated more and need less. They don’t need anything, so we tend to buy things to replace things they already have – that probably don’t need replacing and haven’t worn out. Or worse – the dreaded novelty gift!

The thing is, my boyfriend and I may feel this way, but not everybody does. For me, quality time with the people I love is far more important than receiving gifts. That’s why I treasure experiences, and why I enjoy the family part of Christmas. But for other people, gifts are important. For children particularly, receiving gifts makes them feel special and loved. For some people that feeling must never go away.

Last Christmas, I made all of the presents that we gave to our family, except one (a vintage trinket pot that I’d bought before I decided to do a homemade Christmas). Basically I baked. For days. I love cooking and I enjoy it, and I figure that everyone loves eating! So I made biscotti, and cakes, and cookies, and biscuits, and spiced nuts, and flavoured sugar… I can’t remember everything, but there was a lot. I also cooked Christmas lunch. For my family in the UK, for whom homemade gifts weren’t possible, I simply didn’t send presents.

But after Christmas, I had doubts. I wondered whether I had assumed that because we like homemade presents so would everybody else. Because we wouldn’t expect presents or mind not getting any, no-one else would either. It didn’t solve the consumerism problem. None of the gifts we’d received were homemade. We also received gifts from my family in the UK – they hadn’t thought of our no-present idea as reciprocal. Everything we received was store-bought, and yes, we received some gifts that we didn’t really need or want. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I’d just rather people saved their money rather than feeling obliged to give us things.

I wondered if our Perth family had judged us for making gifts rather than buying them. I wondered if they thought we’d been cheap. (Not that making homemade gifts is actually cheap – ingredients can cost a fair amount – but they can be perceived as being cheap.) I wondered if the UK family thought we were being stingy, or lazy. I wondered if we were trying to push our values onto our family, and in turn they were trying to push their values back onto us.

We did a great deal of thinking. My boyfriend and I have concluded that we don’t need presents and we are happy for people not to buy us things. If someone thinks of a great appropriate gift then that is one thing, but we don’t need certain amounts spent or certain numbers of gifts on certain days of the year just because that’s what everyone else does. However, other people in our family don’t feel this way. They like to receive presents. And presumably because they like to receive presents, they like to give them too – even when asked not to. We’ve slowly come to understand that if we want them to understand and respect our wishes, we need to understand and respect theirs too. If they want and expect presents, then we need to acknowledge and respect that (whilst keeping to our sustainability/eco/waste-free values) and we can’t try to force our own ideas on them. What works for us might not work for them.

How this works in practice we don’t know yet. I guess we need to find the balance that works for our family, that takes everyone’s desires and wishes into account. Maybe one year we will do a proper family Christmas, and the next year we will take Christmas off. One year we indulge in the gift-giving, and the next year we don’t. Having not tried it yet, I can’t comment about how or whether it will work.

In the spirit of that, my boyfriend and I have decided to take this year off from Christmas. We’ve leaving the country on 7th December and not coming back until 3rd January, which means we will be missing everything. We will not be buying Christmas presents for anybody, including each other, and we are asking our family not to buy gifts for us either. Not before we go away, not for when we get back. No money either. Nothing.

This is the first time we’ve ever requested for our family not to buy us gifts, or give us money. It might be a big deal for them; after all, it’s going against the grain. It is a big deal to us, because it will mean that they respect what we want, and how we choose to live our lives. We hope that they will understand that we’re not buying gifts for them either. By saying that we don’t want gifts but we will be buying them for everyone else just complicates the issue – we don’t want anyone to feel the need to reciprocate. We’ve taken part in consumerist Christmas many many times, so maybe they can try things our way too. Just once. Hopefully in the future we can come up with something that works for everybody.

My public holiday nightmare… and some advice needed

This Monday was a public holiday here in Perth, and we had plans to take in Kings Park and the wildflowers and go for a leisurely walk around Lake Claremont, relaxing and generally enjoying the extra free time.

Until, on Sunday night, my boyfriend pulled a bag out of the wardrobe. “Do you think this is mould?”, he asked, showing me some white marks. Hmm, it did look like mould. We pulled a few more things out. More mould. The further we looked, the more we found. Arghh.

And so it was, we were able to make the most of the glorious weather that is so long overdue… Read more