Three years ago my family and I packed our most important belongings into eight suitcases and headed for Hawaii.
Prior to our departure, we purged. Garage-sale fanatics sifted through our belongings, carting off the items that we'd deemed superficial. Dressers with broken drawers, pants that hadn't fit for a decade, and a collection of mismatched dishes were greeted with equal fervor by these bargain hunters. What we couldn't part with – wedding keepsakes, kids' artwork, and the barest of household essentials – we boxed up and stored.
The sense of freedom that came from eliminating the excess buoyed us across the Pacific Ocean toward our new home.
Hawaii – palm trees, sunshine, and aloha. Except within the oceanfront enclaves of caviar and consumption, people here live a simpler life. As one new friend put it, "In Hawaii, it doesn't matter if your countertops are marble or linoleum." People are accepted for who they are, not what they own.
We embraced our new, lean lifestyle. We consciously watched our purchases, aware that most items purchased on the island were shipped in at a certain environmental cost. We wanted to maintain the sense of lightness that came with our newfound simplicity. Besides, our time on the island was limited, and there was no sense acquiring belongings that we'd need to offload when we headed back to our California home.
Even so, our belongings during our three-year stay in the islands began to overflow the minimalist style in which we'd arrived.
Week-long visits from mainland friends meant that a single plate for each of us would no longer suffice. After two years of sleeping on the floor, we finally bought a bed. Our cardboard box table started to sag and was replaced with a barely sturdier secondhand table.
Yet, even with these upgrades, we were living a simple life compared with the stereotypical version of middle-class Americans. Our level of consumption had dropped significantly, and the laid-back atmosphere of the islands left us with a "no worries" attitude about what we were missing. Nobody – except visitors from home – gave a second glance to our cardboard furniture.
Upon our return to California, garish strip malls offered a harsh welcome as shiny new SUVs propelled us down the highway at what felt like breakneck speed. It felt like we'd landed on another planet.
Unpacking our stored items, we were incredulous. Hadn't we purged before we left? Why had we kept so much stuff? Ironically, my family has always lived fairly simply. Acquiring stuff for the sake of having it – or keeping up with the Joneses – has never been important to us. And yet, the excessive belongings we'd left behind told a different story.
After spending time living with true simplicity, my version of "too much" has changed dramatically.
Then: Seven cookie sheets
Now: What am I, Martha?
Unexpectedly, I find myself a willing participant in a movement that has caught the nation's attention, not because I'm a joiner but because I've seen the freedom that living with less brings.
While the 100 Thing Challenge sweeps the nation in an attempt to counter consumerism, I'm more interested in achieving a certain level of sanity in our house. For the way I'm living my life, I don't need the crystal bowls and cake plates that haven't seen daylight since my wedding more than 20 years ago. I don't need 30 bath towels. And I certainly don't need seven cookie sheets.
Why then had it taken a three-year-long hiatus from mainland and mainstream America to recognize that even in our self-proclaimed simplicity there was excess?
Perhaps because I'd been raised to let nothing go to waste. Perhaps because I had no system to measure the value of the items that filled my cupboards. Once it entered our home, a chipped teacup that had never been used had as much clout as the coffee pot that ran daily.
When we packed for our move to Hawaii, I helped my kids determine what to take by asking a couple of questions.
1. Do you need to have it with you in Hawaii? This resulted in one entire suitcase filled with LEGOs, leaving the baggage checkers scratching their heads, I'm sure.
2. Will you be really excited to see this when we get back? If yes, the items were boxed up and stored. If no, they were sold at a garage sale. Maybe not surprisingly, the biggest pile was the one relegated to garage-sale status.
Now, as I sort through the boxes of household items that have come back into my life, I'm asking myself even tougher questions. Do I absolutely need it? Do I love it? If not, out it goes.
Before I kept items by default, but today, if they're going to take up space in my cupboard – and thus my life – they must have a purpose beyond emerging every three years for a special event.
I doubt I can actually downsize to 100 things, but I think paring a family of four down to eight suitcases is mighty impressive, myself.
The voluntary simplicity movement – also called simple living – is built on the belief that less is more and that life is more enjoyable if it's less complicated.
One of the defining practices is that quality of life doesn't depend on large quantities of money or possessions. Those who practice voluntary simplicity try to live sustainable lives by downsizing their possessions, avoiding gas-guzzling cars, and buying organic and/or local foods (which have become mainstream practices). They often arrange their lives so they don't need to earn or spend a great deal of money, thus freeing up time to spend with family and friends, and on artistic pursuits.
Websites with more information:
The Simple Living Network, www.simpleliving.net
Choosing Voluntary Simplicity, www.choosingvoluntarysimplicity.com