Continuing on in my Buy Nothing Day programming, I have a second interview with a minimalist, Katrien.
Check out my first post of the day to read a bit more about Buy Nothing Day — a day of protest against consumerism.
Minimalism isn’t just or only about having and buying less stuff, as I’ve tried to explore through this series of interviews. It is more about applying the notion of ‘less is more’ to one’s life, or aspects of it.
Katrien is a Waldorf-inspired homeschooling mother to twin toddlers, she’s passionate for all things natural and handmade. She’s Belgian by birth, a traveler by nature, and living in Italy for the sake of love. I only recently started following Katrien on Instagram, probably at some point last summer or spring. I was drawn to her images of her gorgeous mountain top life and the beautiful simplicity of it. When she mentioned her interest in minimalism to me one day, I jumped at the chance to interview her for the blog. And I am so glad I did. Katrien shares insightful and inspiring stories and ideas that will interest parents raising young children, but also professionals looking for more meaning in their life and adults pining for a simpler existence.
Katrien, let’s start with you. Who are you? What’s your background?
Before I met my husband I was working my dream job as a freelance writer and researcher for a Belgium Museum. I was a workaholic (with secret dreams of finding a house on a quiet hill somewhere). I loved the high of being at the very end (or very beginning) of a project. That rush of work. The late hours, and sleepless nights, the apotheoses of a grand opening… And in between these exhausting projects I usually threw some stuff into my backpack and traveled the world to find a place where I could rest and heal the damage I had previously done to my health and my spirit… But then I met this boy from Italy. He was a traveler just like me, and when we met he was taking a break from being on the road, and working on his parents organic farm. They had sheep and horses, and made their own beer, and suddenly that secret dreams of a house on a hill came flooding into my daily life. One year later I started working part-time, and two years later I resigned from my job to move to Italy. It was about then that I realized that it is possible to have a meaningful life without the roller coaster of highs and lows. And so I chose to live with less. Less work, a lower income, but more time for life itself.
How many children do you have and what are they like?
We have two three year old identical twin boys. They were born two minutes apart, and although they are very similar in some respects, they are complete opposites in others, complementing each other perfectly. E. (who is the older twin) is a real ‘Big Brother’. Strong, independent, extrovert. He loves to help and get his hands dirty… His ‘younger brother’ A. is more sensitive, more of a thinker, a dreamer. (I often feel like his feet never really touch the ground.) He takes his time to get to know people before opening up to them, but makes really deep connections when he does. But no matter how many differences there might be between them, they have the strongest, most amazing bond I’ve ever seen between two persons. Being an actual, physical, part of each other, much of what goes on between the two of them can remain unsaid. They simply understand. Sure, they also know exactly how to get to each other as well, and we do get quite a bit of fighting at times, but in the end they always seek out each other’s company.
Do you have a favourite quote or words that inspire you?
“Our children come to us with a deep destiny that needs to be honored…A little grace is needed…for them to develop into the people they’re meant to be, especially in a world that is constantly bombarding them (and us) with the distractions of so many things, so much information, speed and urgency. These stresses distract from the focus or ‘task’ of childhood: an emerging, developing sense of self.” (Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne)
We live in a society that wants us to ‘need’, to desire, to crave. Marketing strategies speak to us of more, and more and more. But reading this book we realized that our children were craving the exact opposite. They needed less. And as we started making some changes in our parenting style, we discovered the same was true for us.
You say you’ve only just begun to pursue minimalism, what is your story?
Five years after moving to Italy, my dream of living in a house on a hill came true. A friend told us about this amazing house that was going on sale, and even before I had seen it, I just knew this was the one. A traditional stone house, perched on a hill, and surrounded by nothing but miles and miles of forest. The price was exactly what we could afford, and it looked like she didn’t need much work, and so we made the jump and started packing to move to a different region, and a whole new life.
But as I started filling box after box, I felt I wanted to go with nothing. Leave it all behind, and start afresh with only the things that could fit into the car. Me, Francesco, the boys, and some of our most precious things. But of course we didn’t. Instead we packed up as much as we could fit into a rental van and stored everything in a room we were told was ”nice and dry”.
As soon as the worst of winter was over, Francesco started working on the house. We started off with the renovation of an old, partly ruined barn that was to become our kitchen and living area, and then the rest was going to need a mere ‘freshening up’. Much to our horror though, we soon discovered there was a lot more to do than we had anticipated. We ended up having to change most of the roofs of the house we had just bought. This came as a huge shock. Especially since that meant that the budget we had calculated to rebuild the house, and to live off for a year, was now insufficient. And so we needed to adapt. In the end we could only prepare a small portion of the house for us to live in, and even there, much work remains to be done. But we didn’t give up, and were happy when we were finally (sort of) ready to move in. It was then that we noticed that most of the things we had stored, had been damaged by water leakage. Books, furniture, clothes… Gone. Ruined. And no money to replace them. But to my surprise I wasn’t sad or angry about losing so many of the things I previously thought indispensable or precious. Instead I was relieved. A weight had been lifted. We owned less. And it felt great. And so the desire grew to get rid of more Things. Things that hàd survived the winter, but that somehow didn’t feel like they had a place in our lives anymore.
I believe there are many ways to be a minimalist and many forms of minimalism. What does minimalism mean to you? And, in what ways are you a minimalist?
Being fuelled by the fact that we live of a very tight budget, minimalism first of all means spending less money. We only buy the strictly necessary, and try to make, produce or grow as much as we can ourselves. We grow our own organic vegetables and potatoes in the garden, as well as most of the herbs and spices we use in the kitchen and for herbal remedies, and soap. Furthermore I spend every quiet moment I can get knitting or sewing clothes for me and the boys. That way being minimalists saves us money. But that’s not all. To us minimalism also means making ethically sound choices about the things we do need to buy. Spending less is one part, but we also feel very passionately about the environment, and about not harming others through the choices we make, and so whenever we do need to buy something, we prefer to buy organically produced, ethically made or second-hand. And lastly minimalism has brought us to be (very) selective about how we spend our time. We put family time before anything. Even if that means turning down social or professional engagements. We all need to work, and we can really use the money, but we do not want to take jobs that somehow compromise the way we have chosen to live our life as a family, or go out on social occasions for the sake of going out.
Are there any books, websites or other resources that have inspired your minimalism?
I haven’t read any books, or visited many websites about minimalism, but the book Simplicity Parenting has had a big impact on our parenting style, and on our lives in general. Kim John Payne advocates a (Waldorf inspired) form of minimalism when it comes to the toys, activities and information we expose our children to. He suggests we strip their lives of the ‘unnecessary’ to allow them to come to themselves to realize their full potential, their destiny, their spirit.
We haven’t got a TV in the house, and live a very quiet and simple life, so cutting down on activities and information wasn’t much of an issue. (Except for that part about not talking about adult stuff in front of your children…) But where toys were concerned, we both felt there was room for improvement. Our boys never had much toys, but since we took out some of the toys we felt did not stimulate them to engage in meaningful and creative play, we’ve seen a change in ways we didn’t expect. Long stretches of uninterrupted independent play have now become quite common, and we noticed that they tend to pull out much less toys (only to dump them two minutes later) than they used to do. Toys that are being taken out are now actually played with. And so things started to shift… we started talking about what a similar change could do for us; as parents, as a couple, and as individuals. And suddenly this idea that it actually feels really nice to live with less had a name. It was called minimalism, and we firmly believed there were very good reasons for pursuing it, and to take it a step further than we had so far.
In what ways/areas do you struggle with maintaining your minimalist goals? What is your weakness?
Yarn. I know this might seem silly, but I love beautiful yarn, and if my budget would allow for it, I would probably buy insane amounts of it. Natural, hand spun, plant dyed… No chocolate or clothes, bags or shoes could measure up to that. But unfortunately there’s only so many hours in a day, and so I struggle to use up all the yarn I buy. Hence I tend to ‘stock’ it for later projects, but then of course, meanwhile, more beautiful yarn comes my way… Time to start emptying my knitting chest before buying any more I’d say.
Have there been any struggles with the other people you live with about living in a minimal way?
Not really. We expected it was going to be hard to eliminate some of the toys we had traveling around the house, but in the end it wasn’t. We started out by talking to the boys about ‘getting rid’ of all the things that were broken. After that, we took away some of the plastic toys we didn’t really like to begin with, and as a last step we reduced the amount of books they had in their room by putting together a seasonally inspired bookcase, and storing all the remaining books for later. In the end we were really surprised to find that our boys initially didn’t even notice some things had disappeared, and when they did, they were ok with the fact that we gave them away to charity, because we had enough anyway…
In what ways has minimalism improved your life?
This last year and a half things haven’t always been very easy. Going from having enough money to do whatever you want, whenever you want, to having none at all can be terribly daunting. And yet the most difficult times weren’t the ones when we struggled to buy the things we needed. The most difficult ones were the moments where I wànted something. Just for the sake of having it. A dress. A pair of girly shoes. A pizza night out. Something to give to the boys as a present… To not be able to hàve those things made me feel ‘poor’, and frustrated. But now I find those moments just don’t happen so very often anymore. I guess I’m just happy with what I do have now… even if paradoxically, that is much less than at those times when I felt I needed more. Sure, sometimes I do see a nice dress, or that Perfect Bag that would match every single thing in my closet, but then I remind myself I don’t really need it. (Especially when it comes to ‘fast fashion’ items.) And for some reason that feels great. To be able to say no. To have only what I need. To not spend ages in front of my wardrobe, trying to decide what might possibly look nice on me. (And to know that I won’t be bringing that dress or that Perfect Bag to the charity bin next time I feel like the contents of my closet are coming at me like an avalanche of resentment and guilt.)
What have been some unexpected experiences you’ve had with minimalism?
When I started getting rid of things I felt were just ‘too much’, it was all about making space in rooms and cupboards. I strived to create a visually pleasant and calming living environment. I wanted to have a minimal home. But as we’ve come further in this journey, I have been amazed to see that minimalism has brought us so much more than that. I guess somewhere down the line the meaning of this transformation we are currently undergoing shifted from ‘having’ to ‘being’… it wasn’t so much about things anymore. It was about us. About who we could be. And how we could live.
What advice can you offer to people interested in living a minimalist lifestyle?
Start small. And start with things that you feel you aren’t going to miss. You don’t have to start by throwing away your baby’s first pair of shoes. (In fact, maybe that is one of the few things you might want to keep.) But as you start reflecting about all the things you surround yourself with, I’m sure you’ll find that a lot of things aren’t quite that important to you. Or better even. That you might be better off without some of them. Every object you own has a life, a story, a message. And not all of them are nice messages, so why not get rid of those things first? They are an easy place to start. Think of that ugly thing you got as a gift (but can barely stand to look at), those clothes you bought because someone told you you looked fabulous in them, but that always get taken off just before you leave the house. And then think of keepsakes that somehow remind you of painful experiences. (Yes… those letters from your ex-boyfriend for example (my case), or souvenirs from a holiday that was actually the Worst. Ever.) And then take a break. Just see how it feels.You’ll know what to do next.
Do you have any goals for this year or the next few that you want to share?
Oh yes! Next year, we’re clearing out the basement and the store room. The basement is still full of things that belonged to the previous owner. Things like old windows and half rotten furniture, so that can go. Furthermore we have decided that everything that hasn’t been taken out of the boxes in the store room since we have moved into the house can either go to charity, or will be thrown away. If we haven’t ‘needed’ it the last 18 months, I guess we won’t really need it in the future either.
Thank you, Katrien, for such a lucid interview, so much to think about! Readers you can find Katrien on Instagram @growingwildthings
Check out these other great interviews in this series:
Interview with a Minimalist: Kellie (artist, children’s book lover and mother of 4 boys living in a small space)
Interview with a Minimalist: The Devine Family (off the grid family with 4 children living in a tree house down under, completely garbage free)
Interview with a Minimalist: Amanda (mother of 2 girls with a third on the way, minimalism in the home to unleash her children’s creativity)
Interview with a Minimalist: Carina (artist living in the small space capital of Canada with her 2 children and partner, maximizing life through the great outdoors)
Interview with a Minimalist: Alison (mother of one, the small space living queen of Canada)
Interview with a Minimalist: Brian of Less Means More (travelling around the US with his partner and unschooling their boy)
Interview with a Minimalist: Kylah (organic farmer and vegan chef raising 2 girls off the grid with her partner)
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