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A Journey Into Minimalism

Posted by Theology of Home on
A Journey Into Minimalism

By Denise Trull

One October morning in 2019, a text popped up on my phone with an attached photo of two proud and smiling faces standing in front of a small wooden house on wheels. “We bought a tiny house!” Was all the text proclaimed. But I caught the adventure in those words, the excitement of beginning a new married life in a unique way. I couldn’t help but grin, for it came as no surprise that my son, Thomas, would choose to live in a tiny house. Thomas has always had his own, what more conventional people would term “unconventional,” solutions to challenges. He would never be one to say in a worried voice, “What will the neighbors think?” He has always been utterly free in that regard. Thomas is truly his own man with all that entails, and he met a beautiful woman named Bibiana whose heart was right there with his. I have loved watching their life unfold.

I visited this tiny house when they were newly married. They had parked it in the mountains on the outskirts of Santa Cruz during the off-season at a now deserted retreat center. It was nestled in a quiet circle of the tallest pine trees I have seen to date. I was able to enjoy a night in the house and in the morning opened the door onto a dew drenched field turned to diamonds by a hot rising sun. I felt very small under those pines, in the doorway of a very small house. It was a good way to feel before such a scene. Bibi started some coffee in their pour over carafe and we had cheese and croissants we had brought up with us from a Trader Joe’s the night before. We sat at the old wooden picnic table -- Thomas, Bibi, and my other son David -- and we sipped our coffee from a few unique mugs special to Bibi and we talked about a million things. It was one of the best breakfasts I have had to date. I knew then that their life was going to be interesting in all the best and richest ways.

The little red house traveled up and down the California coast with them, as they stopped here and there to stay awhile and take in the beauty of the scene. They went to Mass in different towns, stopped in at libraries and tiny grocery stores, and found some quiet, hidden beaches. They were domestic vagabonds of a sort that first year, putting together a home and family memories in their own way, in a very tiny space. Neither one asked for much more than to be with the other as the adventure unfolded day by day. It was strangely freeing to me to watch two people so unfettered from "stuff" and the conventional expectations of the world at large.

It certainly gave me a new perspective on making a home. I am a born Hobbit. I love my Hobbit hole and all my things, and I am okay with that. I make memories and establish traditions with them. I have cup collections, and heirlooms are dear to me for all their stories. My books have taken on a life of their own, but I can’t part with any of them. We have been through too much together. But Thomas and Bibi’s life always intrigued me, for they were doing the same thing as me in a different way.

Since that October day in 2019, they have had two little boys now ages three and two. They had to give up the little red house on wheels, but life in that house gave them a few lessons on living in a minimal way which they grew to love and they sought now to incorporate those lessons into apartment living. I wanted to know what they had gleaned from such an experience. I asked them if they would like to share their thoughts in an interview. They were happy to do so.

Trull: Can you briefly describe how you met?

Bibi: Thomas and I met when he came out to Wyoming Catholic College to help direct a play I was in. This was near the end of my senior year. I was going to head back to California after graduation, and Thomas just so happened to live in California at the time. We started “dating” long-distance while I finished out my senior year, then in person when I got back home. I found out pretty quickly that he had been living a minimalist lifestyle himself in order to make it work in the expensive Bay Area.

When we got married, we bought and lived in our tiny house on wheels, and were able to move it to my grandma's house when the full brunt of Covid hit and Thomas's job at a large SAT tutoring company went remote. If it weren't for our minimalism and mobility, we would have been stuck with exorbitant Bay Area rent for no good reason, away from loved ones. Because we were so mobile, Thomas was able to launch his own successful tutoring company in LA and we were able to ride out that looming year of Covid in a familiar family setting. God knows what else would be different about our lives now without our tiny house. Being so unencumbered by "stuff" helped us to take more chances in carving out solutions to our circumstances. I think that is when we began to consider minimalism as a valuable asset we wanted to maintain.

Trull: How would you define your particular minimalism? What attracted you most when you began to seriously look into it?

Thomas: I would describe my approach to minimalism as “phlegmatic realism.” That more or less means that I am not going to deliberately and intentionally hunt through my kitchen to find and dispose of pot-holders just because an official minimalist guru on YouTube gave me the arbitrary time frame of one week to get rid of everything I didn’t use. But I am also not about to keep said pot-holders if I come across them naturally in the course of living my life and eventually discover they have no real use after all. Very few things are naturally “supposed” to be in my house, so if I open a cabinet and see a giant pot that I haven’t used lately and honestly won’t use in the foreseeable future -- I love the idea of making soup, for instance, more than actually making it -- I’ll send it off to Goodwill.

Taking things in this natural stride while simply living day to day and paying attention to the surroundings of my life is the “phlegmatic” part, while the “realism” comes in when I acknowledge that I will not be making a king-size tureen of jambalaya anytime soon. I was attracted to this approach when Bibi first started incorporating a more pared-down attitude towards our stuff. I thought she was on to something, so I wanted to see what my specific method of paring down would be. Considering it for a while, I decided to adopt a relaxed but disciplined habit of disposing of any household object that strayed from the path of my particular everyday life.

Bibi: I hesitate to even call it “minimalism” at this point because that word has come to refer more to a design trend than a way of life in the minds of most people. We do not have pristine white couches and gray walls, but rather thrifted love seats and interesting artwork. Our kids don’t play with “sad beige” toys, but rather ones that they actually love and play with every day. We simply try to fill our lives with things we love, things that serve us, and nothing else. My “minimalism” is really just my continual attempt to keep my small home a happy place by keeping our possessions in check.

TOH: Does anything about your specific personality or upbringing lead you to be attracted to a simpler life?

Bibi: I wasn't born a minimalist, but many aspects of my life from childhood to college gradually led me to a desire for having less. I grew up in quite a large, "populated" family in California, the most populated state. After high school, I did a full swing away from that by going to Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, WY -- a school with a low population in the least populated state. This radical shift from much to not-so-much definitely played a role in getting me interested in minimalism, as I realized I had been craving peace, quiet, and space to really find out who I was. Minimalism seemed to serve that desire.

Aside from this interior motivation, there were also some obvious external incentives to get me to appreciate having less. WCC is known for its outdoor excursions, and on these many outdoor trips, I quickly learned the importance of traveling light, and that this didn't leave me feeling deprived, but rather liberated. The lighter the pack, the easier it is to go places. This quickly proved to be true in other areas of life: the less hindered I am by things, the easier it is to do things I really love.

Thrifty habits also run deep in my family history. For decades members of my family have been great at finding stuff for cheap or free….but not so great at getting rid of stuff when necessary. While I, like my forefathers, still relish the feeling of finding something far below market value, I ask myself whether that thing is worth the space it will inhabit in my home. Sure, there's a free piano on the side of the road…but was I in the market for a piano prior to seeing it? Do we have room for a piano? If we really want it, can we make room for it by getting rid of a less essential or desirable piece of furniture? I have learned to ask those questions.

Thomas: You might say I have a natural affinity for such a life. I always enjoyed fitting into small spaces when I was a little kid. I don’t know why. The linen cupboard in the upstairs hallway in my childhood house was always, for me, the loveliest place to read. That preference for the ability, if necessary, to squirrel away into a small spot that other people might not notice or fit into has always been with me. Perhaps that preference was behind my eagerness to “beat the system” in California and avoid paying rent by creatively living in vehicles for so many years… it certainly contributes to my cheerful embrace of minimal living.

I know a few families who would feel intolerably cramped in our current one-bedroom apartment with two toddlers, but I -- and as far as I can tell, Bibi, too -- have frequently thought that our living room where Bibi and I sleep looks airy, broad, and bright, while my kids’ bedroom is cozy, inviting, and open. We manage to keep all our perishables in a mini-fridge, so our kitchen feels spacious from the lack of an imposing, sarcophagus-sized refrigerator. I feel particularly happy that we are thriving in a space that would, under most circumstances, not be thought of as workable for a family of our size. I am happy that we fit in the linen closet of the upstairs hallway of life, so to speak.

Trull: Did you both make it a priority to be dedicated to living simply when you were first married?

Thomas: Since we lived in a tiny house on wheels for about two years, living simply was, as it were, made a priority for us by circumstances. However, after we moved into our current apartment building and realized how quickly living space fills with paraphernalia, Bibi started making it more of a focus to dispose of things she didn’t use on a regular basis and I eagerly followed suit.

In the process of adopting a more minimalist outlook, we read a wonderful book on organizing -- I know, yes, I had to contain my excitement as well. The author of this book espoused something called “The Container Theory”, a belief that one should establish a set “container” for various elements of one’s life -- clothing, books, furniture, golf-clubs -- and then enforce rigorous adherence to the boundaries of that container. If you are double or triple-stacking books on your shelf, then you should either get a bigger shelf or dispose of books until the limits of the shelf are met. Sticking to this practice does a lot of the “minimizing” for you, I’ve found, and it does a good job when applied in more abstract areas. Thinking about time commitments in terms of the Container Theory, for instance, where the “container” is a set number of hours available for non-family use, helps us to ensure that work doesn’t begin to colonize our home life.

Bibi: Insofar as our living situation required it, we were minimalist from the beginning. But we grew to appreciate more over time and began to actually address various things we still had stored in our cars and other people's garages. Having kids has also led to more intentional discussions about why we want to raise them with less.

Trull: What practical things have you done to carve out a minimalist lifestyle? Housing, furniture, food, toys, cars?

Bibi: Specifically with regard to kids’ toys, we try to outsource playthings as much as possible. For instance, since our local libraries and museums already have Magnatiles, we don't need to own Magnatiles. Also, when we do “splurge,” we prefer to treat ourselves to experiences rather than things. We have a few very handy memberships that provide us with tons of options for fun things to do around town. Granted, our boys are still young, so it's possible that one day they'll resent us for taking them on frequent train rides at the zoo instead of providing materials for them to build and destroy their own personal Lego empire. Time will tell. :)

Thomas: Futons are the name of the game. Couch by day, bed by night, they’re essentially the masked superheroes of the household furniture world. Because we move them frequently, we are always aware when something has rolled under one of the futons, which ensures that we don’t lose any of the toys or shoes that the kids actually use. We have a futon in the living room and the kids have one in their bedroom; we don’t have any bed-frames to stub or stab our toes on, and we use Japanese mattress pads instead of full mattresses. Also, inconvenient as it may seem, I highly recommend purchasing as small a refrigerator as possible. Doing so will make you think long and hard about what food you actually need to buy, and it will keep the food you have nice and visible. That way, nothing goes bad back out of sight, behind the sour cream.

Trull: How much does your Catholic faith figure into your decision to live simply? How about Christmas, Easter, and the bigger Catholic holidays? How do you celebrate with a minimum of stuff and keep it joyful and memorable for your children?

Bibi: The most beautiful Mass I've ever been to was in the middle of the Teton Wilderness in Wyoming. We knelt on camp chairs and a boulder served as the altar. We were high up on a bluff overlooking a large, beautiful lake. We weren't singing Palestrina or Hassler or any of “The Greats,” but simple praise and worship hymns. I'm not saying there isn't ever a time or place for worshiping God in grandiose ways, but a simpler, quieter approach appeals more to me spiritually. Sometimes we make worship too much about our own achievements -- how long a Mass we can sit through, how intricate a church we can build, how many rosaries we can say in a week -- and we sometimes forget that God just wants us to be with Him and enjoy the things He has already provided for us. He wants our heartfelt gratitude, and it can so often be simply given.

Thomas: Unlike previous generations, we have to make an effort to be simple amidst so much consumerism, and it’s helpful to me to remember that Jesus wandered around with very little for most of his public life. If I can approximate that, I will be doing well. In keeping with that simplicity, we try to be clever and concentrated with the holiday celebrations in our home. Last Easter, Bibi made the kids a simple Easter basket with a few books by Tomie de Paola in it, along with some candy and a kiddy-rosary. They were thrilled at the surprise of finding it on Easter morning. It is more the magical feeling of being surprised that they will remember and not the stuff in the basket.

Last Christmas, we got a small, potted tree, put it in the window, and then cut out the gingerbread houses that were printed on the side of some Trader Joe’s grocery bags we had saved. We put a string through them and used them as ornaments. Along with that, we took a dozen very fragrant tea bags and tied them to the branches with ribbons: they looked like presents and filled the room with the scent of cardamom. The kids loved taking the “presents” off the tree, of course, but they also loved (trying) to put them back on. So, we all had fun with that one. We were spared the task of getting and storing Christmas lights, ornaments, and a tree stand, while having a beautiful sign of the Nativity and the exotic scent of Cardamom right there in our living room. We also still have the tree, sitting in a pot outside our window!

Trull: How has having your two little boys affected your ideals of a minimalist lifestyle? How have the children benefited? Have there been any struggles to keep it simple now that you have the boys?

Bibi: Having less definitely benefits young children. Studies show that when kids have fewer toys, they play with their toys more. Toys aside, kids generally benefit from consuming less, as they are easily overstimulated. I think it's easy for adults to forget how easily children can entertain themselves, because many of the things that are interesting to kids are boring to us. The other day, I took my kids to a playground, and they spent most of the time running in circles and poking the sand with sticks. The only show they've been watching the past couple weeks is “Little Bear,” and they love acting out the very ordinary adventures of a bunch of woodland animals. They are still fascinated by everything from light switches to trains to the moon. It can be challenging to just sit with them in these simple delights, and it has led many a parent to come up with conspiracy theories about cartoon characters just to make life more interesting. But it is also very rewarding to see little humans enjoy what we consider ordinary.

Thomas: The boys are both pretty good at playing by themselves, or together, and they appreciate having toys that they can use in various ways. Versatile toys like train tracks, which can be reworked into many different configurations, are a big favorite, as is the toy kitchen that can be both a home patisserie and the local Panera, depending which side of the kitchen window they stand on. So, getting toys that have multiple possible “interpretations” is helpful, especially since that means we don’t have to get separate things for each kind of game the guys want to play.

The kids have benefited from us having a few versatile toys, instead of a bunch of single-purpose toys, mostly because they are able to help us put the toys away in a span of time suitable for a toddler. If there are so many things on the floor or under the bed that it will actually take about fifteen straight minutes to pick them all up, the guys are going to lose interest and won’t learn how to keep their place clean. If instead one could theoretically snatch up all the train tracks, bunny ponchos, trucks, and key rings in less than three minutes, then the three-year-old can reasonably expect to be interested from start to finish. The boys learn that they can (possibly) keep their own room tidy, and we don’t feel crushed when we can’t see the floor of their room under all the stuff. This sort of lesson -- that you do in fact have control over your surroundings, if you choose to exercise it -- will be very important, I suspect, for developing the proper approach to other parts of their lives later.

Trull: Do you think there are specific jobs that lend themselves to living a minimalist lifestyle?

Bibi: I would say any job that leaves you with enough time and peace of mind to be intentional about your possessions.

Thomas: I agree. Any job that routinely gives you a fresh perspective on your living space is good. For that purpose, a job with a schedule such that you have an extended period of unconstructed home time while the sun is up would be great. If you rise at 7:00 and leave for work/school by 8:30, returning by 5:30 in time for dinner at 6ish, followed by washing up / TV / evening family stuff until late, I can tell you that there will not be a lot of time in which your brain can naturally take stock of and evaluate your surroundings. Morning time will be allotted to preparing for the day; evenings will be used up decompressing from the current day and preparing for the next one.

Unconstructed home time during daylight hours provides the right frame of mind to really notice the large spoon and fork, for instance, that have hung crossed over the oven for the last decade, or to contemplate the fact that the dining room hutch is rather full of old ceramic plates that only get busted out when it’s your turn to host Thanksgiving. Even if such a job requires you to rise very early or to stay at work until late, it might be preferable to be at home during the “odd hours” if you want to maintain control of your home environment and make it a place in which you like to live out those family hours.

Trull: You live in California and are still making it work. Do you have any advice on how you keep it doable and simple in a very expensive state?

Bibi: Don’t be afraid to do something unconventional if it works for your family. Don't feel pressured to keep up with the Catholic Joneses. Not everyone needs, wants, or is able to have a home altar or a large family dinner table. As long as your family is safe and happy, prays together and is well cared for, that's all that matters.

Thomas: The number one piece of advice I would offer someone trying to keep things cheap and simple, especially in an expensive city or region, is to ignore every single hint from any source that you need to own/buy/rent/watch/go to/be around/see/meet any person, place, or thing. You are under no obligations to incarnate anyone else’s vision for your life.

Likewise, if you have found a workable solution to a problem, and it actually suits you and your family, go with it, even if other people don’t understand it or think it’s ridiculous. I, for instance, live in Bakersfield, which is about two hours north of where I work at a classical school near Los Angeles. That is, on paper, an absurd commute. However, the rent and related costs of living in Bakersfield are comparable to a mid-size city in the Midwest, including the cost of gas; that means that even though I drive two hours to work in the early morning, I am cumulatively paying a fraction of the overall cost of living in a one-bedroom apartment in any of the cities or neighborhoods near my job. Lots of people think that driving two hours cannot possibly be worth it, but I’m the one who has a prayer of amassing a down payment on a house before I’m 55! If you find a workable solution, pursue it.

Trull: What advice would you give engaged couples or newly married couples in their desire for a simpler life?

Bibi: Accept each other's influence. One person may be ready to haul everything over to Goodwill immediately, the other might be sentimentally attached to every article of clothing they've ever owned (holes and all). Hear each other out and compromise. You could use the fabric from those beloved hole-y clothes to make kid clothes or a quilt. Keep communication open and don't sweep things under the rug metaphorically or literally. Don't be afraid to express your concerns, but make sure you listen to your spouse's point of view, too. Let your simple lifestyle be the natural product of a happy and healthy marriage.

Thomas: Remember that you got married to be with each other in God’s embrace, not to meet some abstract concept of what your life is supposed to look like as an American or as a Catholic. I would tell a younger couple looking to establish a simple life that the key is communication, clarity, and charity. If you love each other and your kids, if you talk to each other frequently, then the proper structures to support and channel your simplicity will arise naturally. There’s no reason, necessarily, to impose an outside order on your life in order to achieve simplicity, or to make your life look a certain way. If you love God and let His love unite and enlighten you, you will have the prudence and wisdom to evaluate what things you should keep in your life and what things you should remove.

* * * 

Thomas and Bibi’s little house is still around. It is quietly sitting in the back corner of a relative’s yard. One day they hope to hook it up to their car and travel around to visit their kids and grandkids and to re-visit all those towns and beaches they loved as newlyweds. It was a providential thing, in the end, to make a not-often-made choice to live like happy nomads for a time. But that choice led to other great choices made as a family grew into a place where children are loved, life is simple, and Christmas smells like cardamom in all their future memories of home. God calls us to all sorts of journeys. Bibi and Thomas took the simpler path of minimalism and found it good.

I will always be a hobbit. But I have grown to love Thomas and Bibi’s life and continually take lessons from their choices, though they be not my own. I am proud of their ingenuity, their informed freedom to think for themselves, the way they love their boys, and their creative solutions to challenges that come their way. I do long for one last picnic outside that tiny house with pour over coffee and conversation in the middle of tall pines. Maybe one day we will do that again. Until then, I wish them Godspeed on their minimalist journey.

Denise Trull is the editor in chief of Sostenuto, an online journal for writers and thinkers of every kind to share their work with each other. Her own writing is also featured regularly at Theology of Home, and has appeared in Dappled Things. She also can be found at her Substack, The Inscapist. Denise is the mother of seven grown, adventurous children and has acquired the illustrious title of grandmother. She lives with her husband Tony in St. Louis, Missouri. 

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