Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Imperfectionist

Back in October, I read an article by Ginia Bellafante in the New York Times titled "The Imperfectionist." (Sorry that I cannot provide a link. Online membership is required.) Remembrances of the article have returned numerous times through these past few months, and this weekend, I was happy to find the copy that I printed out back in autumn. (Exhibit A, your honor: My tendency to print out too many articles that I want to keep or - worse yet - file for later reading. This is one of the few times I've actually gone back to look for one and then actually found it.)

The article is about Dan Ho, author of a fairly new book, "Rescue from Domestic Perfection" and host of a Discovery Health program, "The Dan Ho Show." I am in no way endorsing either of these - as I have not read the book and I have not seen the show. But, the article about his life - at the very least - intrigued me. Some excerpts:

*Dan Ho likes to get rid of things. For the past eight years he has committed himself to a project of aggressive divestment, letting go of houses, sofas, refectory tables, electric mixers, Georg Jenson silverware, and a collection of ceramics. Earlier this year... Mr. Ho, 40, decided to reduce the sum of his possessions and eventually winnowed them down to about 55. Motivated neither by debt nor by environmentalism but simply by a compulsion to unburden himself, he moved from a 1,200 square foot house in Portland, ME to a rented apartment one-quarter the size in Greenwich Village, where he now lives with two roommates... 47 items of clothing and a backpack, suitcase, television, computer, bath towel, single set of sheets, toothbrush, and bottle of witch hazel.

*"When people say they want red walls, do they really want red walls?"..."Do they really want red walls, or do they want impact? Chances are, what they really want is recognition and what they're really, really looking for is recognition from themselves."

*"Perfection is a cheap caricature of style... Candles don't set a mood, people do... Myths [are] enslaving..." One of them, he thinks, is the idea that you should always be ready for drop-in guests. "No, you shouldn't," he counters, "unless you're running a bed-and-breakfast."

*At the core of his philosophy is the belief that our relentless attention to renovation and reorganizing, to building and rebuilding, distracts us from the more demanding work of becoming better partners, caretakers and friends.

*"What I hate is our whole culture of trade-ups-manship... No one ever seems to be happy in the house they actually buy. You visit someone's new place and you say, 'wow, this is great,' and inevitably they'll say, 'well, it's O.K. for now.' and that drives me absolutely crazy."

*[Demonstrating the thought processes of trade-ups-manship] "You build a house, then you put in a pool... Then you need peony garden. Then you watch 'Martha Stewart' and you realize a peony garden needs a fence. Then you think, 'I should have a rose garden, too, and if I'm going to have a rose garden, I have to have 30 varieties.' "

*"If you ever have enough sheets, towels and blankets to warrant an entire closet I can guarantee that you've missed some really good opportunities to do something else."

*What he disavows is inauthentic simplicity. From his perspective, no one should go out and buy drawer dividers to better organize their socks; they should have fewer socks and throw them in a drawer with enough room to distinguish the black ones from the navy ones.

First of all, regarding the comments about drop-in guests and the sheet/ towel/ blanket closet... it's clear he's no Primitive Baptist! And, while I agree with his thoughts on people setting the mood, I'm going to have to keep thinking about the candles for a little while longer.

I don't agree with everything Dan Ho believes nor will do everything he has done. I don't plan on selling my house anytime soon. And, I am not winnowing down my belongings down to the double digits in the near future. (Even if I tried, it would take a while.) However, this has made me think about how much "stuff" I have. Worse yet, how much time I spend moving my "stuff" from place to place. Even worse, especially before church meetings and family visits - when I should be praying and preparing in much more important, significant ways. It's like making the deliberate choice to place a ball and chain on my body - and maybe more significantly, on my mind - that makes all of me move at a more labored pace. Weighed down. Obstacles at every turn.

Now, some of you have been at my house and don't understand what I could be talking about. Clutter? Where? Other friends know better because they've ventured into my basement or looked in CERTAIN closets or shown up unexpectedly at one of THOSE times. But, just like hurtful remembrances and sinful thoughts tucked away in a nice dark corner, no matter how much they're hidden from plain view, they still find a way to affect me day by day, moment by moment. So, as stated a few days ago, I now declare this an official time of agressively getting rid of some stuff: the stuff I'm holding onto for some occasion just in case I might need it someday (that one really has a hold on me), the stuff I'm holding onto for some big project I know I'm never going to complete and I don't even want to do anymore (it will not be a sign of failure!), the stuff I'm holding onto that helps me think I need other stuff to build on it (you know, the building-block-you-need-five-more-things-to-go-with-me stuff)... So much stuff, so many categories, so many (bad) reasons for keeping it all of this time.

(Related: I took a poll with the ladies in the office today and asked how many of them were holding on to a stash of lipsticks or lip liners or eyeshadows that were probably given out as free samples from Clinique or Estee Lauder - in colors they were sure were not right for them and had no intention of wearing - which has taken up space in their bathrooms for more than 7 years for no good reason. You can guess the results. We had one agressive thrower-awayer, and the rest relunctantly responded with yes. Most of the latter group admitted they really wish they had that space for something much more important but just hadn't made the time or it was too difficult to throw it or give it away.)

I especially agree with what Ho states about reflecting on how I spend my time, clarifying priorities, seeking simplicity instead of feeding my sinful nature of discontentment - in what I own, in what I'm working toward, in the home improvement projects, in what I am expecting to come my way in life. Discontentment in what I hold in my hand and in my mind and in my heart. Especially once in the vicious cycle, I find myself so caught up in what might come along instead of focusing on the wonderful of the here and now. I don't believe Ho is talking about becoming a slacker, someone who never desires advancement or excellence or a plan toward improvement. I just think he's talking about taking time to redefine excellence and reprogram and focus.

I pray for freedom from lugging tubs and boxes from place to place. I pray for open spaces to work on the activities I want to fill my life. I pray I never have to make another trip to the store for something I know I have but just can't find. Most of all, I pray for contentment in what I have so I have more time in working on who I am and how I can better serve others.


Dani said...

I don't agree with alot he says, either.

I like certain colors, they are cozy, and if I'm going to spend a fair amount of time at the apartment, I want to enjoy the place. It is a place that will do for now, because one day we want to own our own place, but it will do if that day is in a year or in ten.

I enjoy crocheting and sewing for others, so I have a large assortment of yarn and scraps for blankets and such. On our gift registries we picked lots of towels and kitchen stuff, cause I hope to be able to keep lots of PBs, and at very least my brothers in the summer if they want to come down.

There are things that I have that I should probably chunk. I love books, and don't like to let them go. Some are great text books, that work with other research and some I have had since second grade, that perhaps a bookwormy daughter might enjoy as much as I did. I have a hope chest full of letters, and things I have writen. I have no expectation that they will be of any value to a historian or that they will be of any interest to anyone, but I don't want to let them go.

However, I've already been looking around my room, and wonderin if I will carry all of these things with me, when I get married, and I believe some of them, will have to go.

He's right that contentment doesn't come from stuff, but that doesn't mean you can't live comfortably or that you should seek to only own 55 items. If that makes you happy go for it, as for me I want lots of towels, and I want people to feel welcome to drop by.

Dani said...

wow, that was really too long...

Elizabeth said...

Stuff, stuff, stuff: we hold to so much of it and keep it safe because it "means" something to us...While I am one of those who throws away everything but those lipsticks that I'll never wear, Materialism is at the heart of our culture and would do better were it at the pinky toe. Look at Christmas, what is intend to celebrate the birth of our Savior turns into who can put the most junk in their front yard....
I do think it is good to have enough of the basics of company - because you never know when you could be entertaining angels unawares, but overall give most of the junk to goodwill and then follow the Lord a little closer because you don't have so much to distract you. :)

Tracy said...


Siren said...

I started finding true happiness once I started letting go of all my stuff. So far I've cleared out (garage sales, donations, etc) HUGE quantities - easily a hundred boxes if I really added it all up. I still feel like I've got too much, but it was a good start and my life feels lighter.

This past weekend I started cleaning out 3 huge boxes of stuff my mom gave me when she moved a few months ago. She claimed it was "my" high school stuff, but it turns out none of it actually belonged to me. (Mostly duplicates of pictures of nothing special no one remembers taking.) I've taken great pleasure in throwing most of it away, and will take even greater pleasure in doing something special with the few pieces that are actually valuable (like portraits of my great-grandparents).

I kind of felt like those boxes were an allegory for the whole concept - the really important things got lost under all the stuff.