Case Studies and bedtime stories

The EMBABE Diaries

Simple Is Complicated

on October 22, 2015

The dream of simple living. Man, how I’ve loved that dream. And, by all accounts, I am not alone – I googled “simple living” and got 113 million results in 0.28 seconds, as well as an intro to the differences between minimalism and simple living. It turns out that the living may be simple, but the theory is complicated, so I don’t quite know if my simplicity cravings mean I’m a wannabe simple lifer or a wannabe minimalist. I’ve just always wanted things – material things, as well as life in general –  to be simple, clean and organised. You know, like a Kinfolk magazine cover or a Muji store display. I imagine that life within these spaces has a crisp quality about it; no fuzzy edges, clearly defined areas, space to breathe in between. Colours always matching.

The latest issue of Kinfolk magazine - on my floor, waiting to be read.

The latest issue of Kinfolk magazine, on my floor. Just look at those clean lines…

I have a clear memory of being in high school, pacing the hallway in my parents’ apartment (my favourite thinking place) and pondering (as one does, right?) whether I had space in my life for a boyfriend: “No no no, really, no way, I have my life so neatly organised with everything in its own little drawer, and this guy, oh no, he doesn’t fit in any drawer. Better not.” I no longer remember what, at 16, I had going on in my life to need all those drawers for, especially since this was during that brief period in my life when I had temporarily stopped being full-on nerdy, so I don’t even think I was particularly busy studying. And, as it happened, the boy did make it into my life eventually  (the drawers put up a mighty fight, so it took a while), which was complicated, and messy, and heartbreaking – all of those things that my drawers were protecting me from. It was also exhilarating, laugh-out-loud funny, exciting, a little crazy, and life-affirming – all of those things that my drawers were protecting me from.

I still crave calm and organised spaces, so much so that I count reading books about organisation and de-cluttering among my chief guilty pleasures and I get a lot more excited about buying pretty boxes in Ikea than I ever do about buying shoes (I know, I know. Judge away, don’t hold back). I’m constantly trying to create routines and habits; they’re my version of benevolent spirits, watching over me to make sure I stay on the right path without having to struggle too much. And yet, my physical spaces, my mental space and my schedule will always, slowly but surely, become full to the brink, threatening to overflow and swallow me up. And then I start again – shedding the unnecessary, taking everything else and organising it, placing every little thing in its own little drawer. Until the next time.

All of which can be taken as meaning that I haven’t evolved much in the past twenty years. But I’ve changed – not with a deafening cry of rebellion, but with a quiet reassuring whisper, an “it’s ok, darling, I know this makes you feel safe so we’ll keep doing it, but how about changing it just a bit?”. And – I guess in the same vein of keeping things incremental and safe – the way I’m learning to let go of my quest for perfect organisation relies on lessons I’ve learned from my much-loved organising books (whose ideas I may have adapted and potentially perverted in the process, but hey, whatever works).

The first lesson comes courtesy of Marie Kondo, a Japanese professional organiser who wrote a bestselling book called “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” (you may laugh, but don’t diss it till you’ve read it). She says there’s only one question you should consider when deciding what to keep and what to throw or give away – not whether the object in question is functional or not, not how expensive it was, not who gave it to you, but simply and only “Does it bring you joy?”. I love this principle. That flowery cushion cover that does nothing but collect dust and ruin any chance of my living room being Kinfolk-worthy? It stays, because my heart does a little dance whenever I look at it. (As an aside, I think embracing that principle makes me more of a wannabe “simple lifer” than a wannabe minimalist, but trying to figure it out sounds exhausting.)

And then there’s the junk drawer. The organising books say you should have a junk drawer and they mean it literally, but I think this principle can be expanded to an entire life. In my version of things, a junk drawer is home to all the things you don’t want to let go of, even if they can’t be categorised, labelled and filed. It’s where the magic happens – creative solutions, unexpected connections, chance encounters, joy for the sake of joy.


From my junk drawer, this week


The sky this morning

The sky this morning

Autumn yellow - the brightest, happiest colour I know

Autumn yellow – the brightest, happiest colour I know

Fairy lights - anywhere, anytime

Fairy lights – anywhere, anytime


That’s why many people feel that their space, and maybe even their life, need to be like one huge junk drawer; they’re worried that any boundaries, restrictions, labels and folders will make it impossible for them to access the magic, will strangle their creativity. And that may be true if you get so carried away with filing and sorting that you forget about keeping a junk drawer altogether; but if you hold on to it tight, never let go of those things that bring you joy but can’t be classified and organised (i.e. the things that make you, you), then having everything else fairly neat will mean that you have space and time to go rummage through your junk drawer from time to time and tinker with your treasures. At least that’s what I hope, as I feel another bout of organising fever approaching. I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, I leave you with this quote from “Sweet Caress”, William Boyd’s latest novel:

“My life has been complicated, true, very complicated, and it seems to be entering another realm of complexity. But, then again, isn’t everybody’s and won’t everybody’s be just as complicated? Any life of reasonable length throws up all manner of complications, just as intricate as mine have been. […] Yes, my life has been very complicated but, I realise, it’s the complications that have engaged me and made me feel alive.”

Almost enough to make you discard that dream of the simple life, isn’t it?

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2 responses to “Simple Is Complicated

  1. Jordana B says:

    Hi Alex! I was just cleaning up my old LBS emails (since getting back from maternity leave a couple of weeks ago) and I stumbled on your blog again… so I thought I’d say hi and tell you I just love the way you write! I also loved Kondo’s book and always ask myself whether things in my life (not just possessions) spark joy to decide whether or not I should keep them around. Especially now that I’m a mom and my free time is so limited! Good for you for accomplishing so much while being a busy mom yourself. Big hugs to you, your mom (whom I always think of fondly from our time together in India) and your lovely family! xoxo Jordana

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