When Shawna Scafe picked up a copy of Francine Jay’s The Joy of Less one recent January, “the floor just dropped out from beneath me. I now had permission to get rid of all the stuff, not just what I didn’t need, but also what I didn’t love.”
She read the book — an introduction to minimalism — in two days, surrounded by the piles of stuff she’d bought her three kids for Christmas. “I had just blown the budget on everything I thought was cute, all kinds of plastic toys. And a month later, they weren’t playing with any of them. And I just began to tear my house apart.”
For nearly a year, Shawna jettisoned literally truckloads of her family’s belongings: toys, clothing, books, sports equipment, furniture. “I pretty much furnished my niece’s apartment. We gave things to friends, sent others to thrift stores and landfill, had a yard sale.” She and her husband, Conor, turned the basement, previously filled with boxes and storage, into an office for Shawna and a playspace for Levi (7), Lenayah (6), Dawson (4).
Since then, she’s been a devotee of the mindset of minimalism, blogging about her journey and hosting a podcast about living simply on purpose, called Simple Saturdays. Shawna describes minimalism as “a mindset,” a way of identifying and then creating the kind of life you want to live. “It’s having the space to make choices that let us live in line with our values, to be open to living a life ‘on purpose’ rather than on autopilot, to be content to have enough instead of being driven to excess.” As a certified life coach, she helps other women get similarly unstuck, letting go of not only their physical clutter but the mindsets that hold them back from living the life they long for.
Today, you might expect that Shawna’s home, in a small town in B.C.’s interior, is a sleek bastion of minimalism, every surface bare and shining. You’d be wrong.
“I thought I would have a more dramatic ‘before and after,’ but life goes on,” she says. “There are always craft supplies out and Legos on the living room table. The kitchen is always in action. Our house is still lived in. It’s just that now the things that are out are the things we love. Spaces that were unusable before are now spaces for creating.”
Lots of people, says Shawna, are drawn to minimalism due to its implications for the environment. For her, that was a byproduct, although a welcome one. “I have a degree in environmental health. It’s not news to me that I need to be a good steward of the earth. And I remember standing in my basement, looking around at the bags and bags of garbage I was letting go, and crying when I realized that I was a crappy steward.”
In Shawna’s family, being a good steward means things like minimizing waste through recycling, using reusable water bottles and kids’ lunch kits, or beeswax wraps and cloth napkins instead of their disposable alternatives. “We buy secondhand clothes, bikes, housewares quite often. We garden — some years more successfully than others. We tried to get most of our meat through hunting or through my in-laws’ farm. We do a lot of do-it-yourself renovations, and we always try to fix things rather than replace them — it helps that my husband is a mechanic. We compost, but not in the winter.”
Her family’s most significant contribution to the environment, though, is simply trying to “not buy a lot of stuff all the time. We try to use just what we need. I shop with a list. And if something isn’t on the list, I try not to buy it.”
When she feels the urge to buy, Shawna will often take an inventory of what she already has. “When you pull out all the clothes in your closet, and you see that you have more than you could wear in a month, it’s tough to feel like you need anything new.”
These days, Shawna gets a bigger kick out of getting rid of stuff then buying it. “Sometimes I feel like a weirdo because I get such a rush from decluttering,” she says, laughing. “My reward is a clear space.”
That rush, she says, comes from creating instead of consuming. “We’re in a constant state of consumption, whether that’s food, products, or media,” she points out. When things are going off the rails with the kids, or the house feels chaotic, she’ll try to get her family into creative rather than consumer mode: “We’ll turn off the screens. We’ll go out for a walk. We’ll put on some good music, and everybody gets working: whether that’s crafts or Lego. Because it’s numbing just to consume. When you create, you’re turning into the person who activates their own life.”
SUSAN GOLDBERG is a regular contributor to the Whole Family Happiness Project, where she is thrilled to eco-geek out on composting, reducing plastics, and other low-carbon life hacks. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines, and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and co-editor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Susan is based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she can often be seen picking up cans to recycle on her neighbourhood walks.
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