Friday, March 13, 2015

Simple Life, Happy Life

We found these mugs in the hardware store, and bought them because they seemed like the perfect touch to add to a rental that was called "Casa Pajaritos" (The Bird House).  But arranged like this, the his-and-her mugs seem to have an important message, ya think?

One of the things we hoped to do, this trip, was get out of what my friend Linda called the "bubble" -- that protected space for tourists, all high-rise hotels and white-sand beaches and palm trees.  How do real people here live, and what could we learn from them?  So instead of a luxury beach resort, we rented a small furnished apartment with a garden view.

When we walked into our rental, I immediately noticed the spaciousness.  Which seemed odd, because by US standards, the apartment is not very spacious at all, at a little over 450 square feet, it seems very small and simple.  But then, houses in the Caribbean often seem small to US eyes.  It's not that the entire population is poor, its just that when the daytime temperature is 82F/28C year-round and the nighttime temperature is 77F/25c, much of life happens outdoors in the yard or on the porch/patio. Indoors is for cooking and sleeping and not much else, and our little apartment was no different.

Outside, a large shaded porch faced the shared garden.  It included a dining table and two comfortable wicker chairs where we would spend almost every morning sharing a pot of coffee (and other things; this post was written there.) Inside, the main room, which served as a combined living/dining/kitchen room, is around 13x17. That's about the size of the master bedroom back in our house in Michigan.  There was reason #1 for me to dance around with my arms widespread, enjoying the space -- the main room was twice the size of the main salon on the boat.  An L-shaped kitchen takes up one end of the room; the sitting area forms the other.   The floor is tile, white around the edges and black in the center, suggesting area rugs without the clutter of actual rugs; the walls are concrete painted white.  The decor is mostly low-key.  Furniture is minimal and of simple materials, no elaborately carved mahogany here! A dining table and 4 chairs, a sofa, flat-screen TV on a credenza, wall-hung shelves for books and knickknacks fill the main room.  The bedroom is similarly streamlined: a bed, two nightstands, a dresser, a chair.  A couple of lamps in each room ... and that's it.  No excess.  Everything we need, and nothing we don't.  A few pots and pans, dishes and glassware in the cabinets.  I looked at the cabinets in wonder; as we unpacked and put away our groceries, I realized more than half the space was still empty.  We used to design and build kitchens, far larger and more elaborate than this one.  But now, after 13 years living on the boat, I could no longer imagine owning enough possessions to fill even this small kitchen.

The second thing that struck me was how calm it felt to be here.  I recently read an article about our Western overwhelming relationship to -- or obsession with -- "stuff."  The article refers to a study done by some anthropologists at UCLA "In the smallest home in their study, a house of 980 sq ft, there were, in the two bedrooms and living room alone, 2,260 items. And, because of the rules the anthropologists were using to count, that was only the things they could see when they stood still. They didn't count any of the stuff that was tucked into drawers or squeezed into cupboards."  There were other statistics, too.  I learned that the average British woman buys 59 items of clothing per year, and has 22 items in her closet that she's never worn, and that the average family in the US study had 438 books and magazines.  The authors talked about the stress people feel when they are surrounded by too much clutter and coined a new word: "stuffocation."  I knew the feeling.  Sometimes a sofa feels like an anchor, tying you to a home, a lifestyle.  I remember a weird time, toward the end of our posting in Michigan, when I sat in our (gorgeous) house by the river, and felt a momentary envy for refugees from the war in eastern Europe, who had fled their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs.  Not really -- I don't want to be in a war zone and lose everything I own.  But at the same time, I desperately didn't want to be obligated to the eternal care and maintenance of Grandma's silver, either.

That 2,260 number blew my mind, and sent me counting the items in our small apartment. I counted a little over 200 "things" in the living room and 67 in the bedroom. Not bad, not bad at all!  And I can't help but wonder if one of the reasons this place is feeling so relaxing, is that simplicity of possessions -- barely a tenth of the US average.  I've noticed the same thing when I've visited the homes of friends who used to live on boats and moved ashore, they often seem to have carefully considered collection of items, no clutter, an aesthetic that must have come from the necessity of life on board, where there just never was storage space for excess, and you get used to leaving nothing out on the counters that could be tossed in rough seas and the ever-present threat of mildew.

The clothing statistic, 59 new items per year, was a similarly dramatic contrast with my experiment with Project 333 and dressing with less, and made me think of a character in a novel I'm reading who was even more extreme.  She is described as a seasoned sailor in the Caribbean, her entire wardrobe consisted of 2 pairs of cutoff shorts, a pair of jeans, 2 bikinis, 6 cheap tourist t-shirts, and some well-worn foul weather gear.  Okay, she's a fictional person, and meant to be admirable. Presumably she also had shoes somewhere and some other odds and ends that were conveniently left out of the inventory, but the point about the extreme simplicity, I think, was the same.  Everything you need, and nothing you don't.

That's one of the lessons in simplicity that I so wanted to bring home with us.  The serenity of having empty space, and not too many things, as a decorating style.  And those few things that are there, are cherished and important.  But like the fictional character with the minimalist wardrobe, that's not quite the way reality works -- especially fulltime on a small sailboat.  Fitting everything aboard in an uncluttered, place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place mindset requires extreme streamlining.  At the same time, that need to streamline to fit everything aboard is at constant war with another liveaboard imperative.  You want to be self-reliant, able to repair a boat system, broken down on some deserted island, no hardware store in sight?  It's hard not to be a little bit of a hoarder, stashing all kinds of random bits, so able to produce whatever odd item, tool or spare part, you might you need.  Conflicting goals? Maybe. But finding the perfect balance between those two competing directions might be the real lesson in simplicity I'm looking for.  No one ever said this living aboard thing was gonna be easy.

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