Editors Note: I’m taking this week off to spend quality time with my mom and I have a number of fun guest posts lined up. The first guest post is by Victoria Vargas of Smaller Living. She is a writer, archaeologist, historic preservationist, and loves small dwellings. Victoria recently relaunched smallerliving.net. Enjoy the post!
“…the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” ~Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space
One of the main facets of simple living revolves around simplifying the spaces in which we live. Purging our excess “stuff” and de-cluttering our homes is a first necessary step to simplifying and freeing our lives for what matters. Getting rid of the material things that don’t serve us often brings the realization that we don’t need as much space in which to live. Downsizing to smaller digs is typically the next logical step.
So there you are—you’ve purged all the excess stuff you warehoused in your home for years and maybe (hopefully) even downsized to a smaller residence. Now how do you make your space home, one that supports your simple living goals? Unfortunately (or blessedly), there is no single formula for creating a sense of home in our dwellings.
I’ve long been interested in how our surroundings affect us emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Why do some spaces seem to feed us while others deplete us? Why do some spaces make us feel supported, relaxed, and happy while others make us feel vaguely (or acutely) uncomfortable, restless, and drained? Why are some people in absolute bliss in a bare room with white walls furnished only with a table adorned with a vase and single flower and to others this feels sterile and bleak? Why do some people feel claustrophobic in small, cozy rooms with walls covered in bookshelves and artwork while others feel exposed and vulnerable in large rooms with soaring ceilings?
With everyone I’ve talked to about this, it always seems to be visceral – an inexplicable, instinctual feeling, either positive or negative, that is evoked when in certain types of built environments. But just as interesting, it also applies to our feelings in different natural settings.
Some people are drawn to the open expanse of the prairie, while others feel skittish and exposed. Some, like myself, prefer the soothing shelter of mountains and forests, while others prefer the dynamic action of the ocean. Some people are more comfortable in small towns while others seem to literally need the energy and density of a large city. It makes me wonder if our environmental preferences and needs are coded right into our DNA. Is it possible that we each hold some level of faint ancestral memory as to which types of environments we need to inhabit to thrive?
Size of dwelling, however, seems to be more about personal wants than needs – one does not need a large house to thrive. If this Great Recession, peak oil era, and global warming data have taught us anything, it’s that we need to live smaller and walk more lightly on this earth. Thankfully, the over-consumption pendulum is swinging back to a saner and more responsible way to live. As I connect with more and more people who are transforming their lives to live more simply, it gives me great optimism for our future. A big step for many, is reducing the square footage of the dwellings they inhabit.
Any dwelling small in square footage can feel open and expansive if it has an open layout with tall ceilings and huge banks of windows across the walls. I have experimented quite a bit through the past ten years with home sizes, room sizes, furniture scale and arrangements, wall color, fabrics, and artistic elements. And I have finally come to identify those pieces that together form the supporting refuge I need in my home. But what I’ve also come to realize is that what works for me often wouldn’t work well for someone else. What makes a dwelling a home is deeply personal.
Alain de Botton, a modern philosopher, delves deeply into the relationship between our emotions and our built environments in his book, The Architecture of Happiness. In one of my favorite essays in the book, he writes:
“[The house] has provided not only physical but also psychological sanctuary. It has been a guardian of identity. Over the years, its owners have returned from periods away and, on looking around them, remembered who they were….Along the stairs, small still-lives of eggs and lemons draw attention to the intricacy and beauty of everyday things. On a ledge beneath a window, a glass jar of cornflowers helps to resist the pull towards dejection….Although this house may lack solutions to a great many of its occupants’ ills, its rooms nevertheless give evidence of a happiness to which architecture has made its distinctive contribution.”
Our built environments have a profound effect on us, it’s clear. So, in our haste to de-clutter our spaces, downsize, and simplify our lives, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater by unequivocally equating simplicity with austerity or any four walls with a home. Instead, let’s each take the freedom gained from the purging of too much stuff and too large of spaces and use it to create our true home, one that supports and nurtures us and reminds us of what we value, who we are, who and what we love, how we wish to live our lives, and – just as important – that which we find beautiful and inspiring.
Minimalists may find beauty in less while others on the simple living path may yearn for a bit more texture, color, and imagery. That is as it should be. Just as one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to our dwellings, one approach to simplicity or minimalism doesn’t fit everyone either. We are all in different places along our paths and none of our paths are exactly the same. It is in satisfying our idiosyncrasies in stylistic preference, openness to experience how particular spaces affect us, and an understanding of what we need (or can’t abide) in our surroundings to support and nurture us, that we can find and transform a dwelling into a home.
For me, simple living and happiness are both intimately intertwined with where and how I live. I depend on my small home to be a “guardian of my identity,” to remind me of who I am upon returning from the cacophony and confusing chaos of a consumer-driven and materialistic society. If I am not supported, comforted, and inspired by my own home, how will I maintain the strength and conviction to walk my talk in the outside world?