Wednesday, 22 October 2014

the complicatedness of simplicity

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
Henri David Thoreau

Home Sweet Home
I have a confession to make: my personal style includes a certain amount of clutter and I’m a proponent for simple living. It’s just that my life doesn’t fit between the covers of a simple lifestyle magazine. Yes, there are entire magazines that preach the gospel of minimalism and de-cluttering. Sleek spreads show you immaculate homes with only three items on a desk and a flawless bunch of organic produce on an otherwise bare kitchen counter. The phrase “simple living” has reached mythical proportions. If we are to believe the media, it is synonymous with perfection. And the colour white.

But we do live simply aboard our old Nyon, and there is nothing further from perfection than our sailboat: all you need to look at are her fifty-something year old wood floors, her leaks, and the piles of homemade throw pillows. To be honest, I prefer the term living consciously. The Epicureans of 4th century BC also tried to live by that mantra. The philosopher Epicurius was the founder of the movement that called for living modestly and limiting one’s desire for material things.

There are many more recent examples of people moving away from materialism and embracing self-sustaining lifestyles: Shakers and Mennonites come to mind. And have you ever read Rousseau, or Thoreau’s “Walden”? This concept is a recurring one. However, the images now associated with choosing to live simply have glossed over the realities of what it means.

The actuality of “simplifying your life” is that it’s more work, it’s often time consuming, and everything happens slowly, especially on a boat. So why do it? What’s so bad about material things and convenience? Nothing. I just found that for myself, when everything is at my fingertips, I tend to go on auto-pilot. When I don’t have to think about water consumption or space, I become less conscious of what is around me or of what I may choose to acquire. When I have to plan to make water on a sunny day, when I can’t accumulate food in a freezer (because I don’t have one), or when there is nowhere to put that last item, I am forced to think about how my actions impact my resources. I notice the finite edge of things and I shift my priorities. Convenience no longer takes precedence, things just become things.

The advantage of living on a boat is that even if you have pack-rat tendencies, the limitations are very clear. There is no attic, no shed. And if you actually sail that boat, everything needs an “away”. It’s almost cheating. We live the simple life in part because we have to. When you live aboard, you cannot replicate your land life, period.

Simple moments
From my perspective, living consciously isn’t just about limiting material things and becoming self-sustaining. It’s also about being in the present moment. That’s challenging, especially now that we once more have access to first world comforts and technology. Regular access to the Internet and media fills every crevasse of the day. I can’t think of a happier time than our stay in Suwarrow in the Cook Islands. There was no Internet there, no cell phones, and no stores. We could send e-mails, but we’d check our inbox every few days via our satellite phone, not every hour. If we were restless, we didn’t pick up the iPad and check what our friend had for breakfast on Facebook. I got my art supplies out. We took apart our winches and serviced them. We did yoga on the beach and swam with manta rays. Life was rich with possibilities.* I miss the quiet of that disconnected world.

When we choose to strip our lives from unnecessary things and distractions, it can be challenging. Often, there is the need to overcome feelings of emptiness that come from removing the usual distractions. The resulting quietness lets the noise of our minds take over, which can be unsettling. It’s certainly not all Zen all the time. My personal hurdle is managing the available technology in a way that it doesn’t eat me up.** For other live-aboard sailors (cruisers), the lack of a washing machine or not having a seemingly endless supply of water is especially difficult. I imagine landlubbers have their own demons to wrestle with. Still, I am an advocate for the simple lifestyle in its many incarnations.

I also realize that I am writing this from a place of privilege. I can make the choice to strip my life from luxuries; I was not forced by circumstances. Though I never had the option to buy the big house or the latest toys, I still recognize how fortunate Rick and I are to voluntarily choose to live simply. 

There are many ways to bring your life to its core essentials, and to be present. While it’s a sometimes challenging path, it is freeing in ways you can’t imagine until you do it. It’s like taking a deep breath after being underwater for too long. Though I can guarantee that for most of us, it will not look like the glossy photo in that magazine.

*Of course, it was easier to do “fun” things as we did not have work commitments at the time, however, we are working now and the advantages of simple living are still evident to us.

** We have reduced our Internet use to what our phone plan offers: up to 1GB each per month, plus the occasional free Wi-Fi connection ashore. This makes a big difference to our time spent online. 


  1. So nicely written my friend, thank you. Eager to see the Nyon before and after spread. Miss you guys.

  2. It figures that I would feel moved to comment on your excellent post...and discover Michael Robertson had been so moved as well! I discovered your blog through your comments on the Del Viento blog! :) Anyway, this is extremely well written from the heart. It certainly describes many of the feelings my wife and I have had after choosing the liveaboard lifestyle for the past 5 years. We look forward to cruising south in the near future (within 2 years) and in the mean time, we do our best to enjoy your simple life in the moment. Thanks for sharing your life and adventures!

    1. Thank Kevin! I haven't been writing as regularly lately, though I hope that's about to change. We met the Del Viento crew back in Mexico - a fab bunch!



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