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Wednesday, September 07, 2005


On Sunday I learned there’s a beautiful house for sale on one of my favorite streets in Philadelphia, and that started a whole chain of thought about whether we need a bigger house, whether now is a good time to buy (when our current house has tripled in value, but the prospective house’s neighborhood hasn’t gone up as much), or a bad time (because of my mother’s illness and my total lack of time).

My husband Tom wants to renovate our current house to be a model of renewable energy, which I’m all for, except that it doesn’t solve the problem of having enough space either in our house or in the back yard. In truth, I care more about the yard. I’ve put a lot of labor and impatiens into our tiny garden, but we rarely use it, partly because it is across the alley from our house. This odd arrangement (which is not that uncommon for Philadelphia rowhouses) means that if I send a kid to set the outdoor table, s/he could get hit by a car on the way. This concerns me. Luke, on the other hand, is concerned that if we move we might leave behind some of the Legos he has sprinkled around the house.

Aside from the alley, it comes down to this question: how much is enough? We have three bedrooms and one bath, more than most families on earth, more than I grew up with, and certainly more than the people from New Orleans who are currently crowded into shelters. And yet I look around and wonder where we’ll put my desk and all my books when the children outgrow sharing a room, as they’re bound to do in a culture where a brother and sister typically each have their own room. I wonder where I’ll put the furniture I’ll inevitably inherit from my mother, some of which belonged to my grandmother and would be hard to part with.

It’s not actually a problem of too little space, but a problem of too much stuff. With this in mind, I started rearranging the living room furniture yesterday morning, as Tom was getting ready for his first day at his new job. In the end I decided we should just get rid of the desk that collects all the clutter in the hope that piles of mail and train schedules won’t materialize somewhere else. I threw out a ragged rug, started a pile of books we could get rid of, and chucked the baskets of toys that had been in the living room into the basement, which is now flooded with toys that can’t be sump pumped away.

I wrote at the beginning of the summer about clearing out the basement, but I’m afraid we’ve rearranged more clutter than we’ve cleared. The main obstacle is Luke who sobbed when I threw the rug away and can hardly stand the thought of parting with his old, unused toys. I’m not sure what to do about this. Bribe him? Do it when he’s not around? Hold onto the stuff until he’s emotionally mature enough to be generous? Move to Botswana and live in a mud hut for a few years? (I confess I threaten this occasionally.)

I remember a passage from The Barn at the End of the World by Mary Rose O’Reilly, who describes herself as “a Quaker, Buddhist shepherd.” Mary Rose recalls driving with a friend and his son when the boy asked for a new toy. Mary Rose was a little disapproving when her friend obliged, wanting to teach her own children material simplicity and limits. But her friend explained that he wanted to teach his son abundance so the boy would grow up trusting that he would always have enough.

I remember that story when I feel I’m failing at simplicity. I also remember that we mostly teach by example, which is why I started collecting the books I haven’t read in twenty years to give away or sell. I still haven’t completely let go of the idea of buying a bigger house, but it’s clear that our family as a whole is not ready for that right now. Whether I need to let go of the idea altogether and commit to renovating our current house or just wait until “way opens” (to use Quaker jargon) isn’t clear yet, but I trust that it will become clear. Hopefully my basement will too.


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2:52 PM  
Blogger Suzanne said...

Delurking to thank you for such a thoughtful post. I am at the early stages of feeling the need to cull some of my family's possessions. We have more than we need, and I fear that we live in service to our stuff (especially on the technology end) rather than the reverse.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Denise said...

I found your post through a blogspot link. I have enjoyed reading several of your posts. I believe in living a simple life and share a one-bedroom apt. with a friend. What really helps me live simple is that every time I move and/or at least twice a year I clean out my apt. top to bottom and donate anything that I don't really need to the Church thrift store for them to recycle. I don't like carrying around all that extra baggage. I know possessions tend to weigh me down. Keep writing and thanks for sharing, Denise, Daily Explorations

5:33 PM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

Thanks Denise and Suzanne. I just saw a film today called "The End of Suburbia" about what will happen to our lifestyles when oil supplies decline (beginning in the next few years). It made me clearer than ever that we should simplify more.

8:00 PM  

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