Thursday, February 15, 2018

Creating a frugal minimal-ish lagom life

S I've mentioned occasionally, my siblings and I grew up in a household that, due to our specific circumstances (two adults and six kids living in the East Bay Area of California in the late '70s, primary breadwinner was a freelance graphic designer who sometimes went a long time between paying gigs, galloping stagflation, etc.), functioned well below the poverty line. Until Dad passed away, though, our family accepted very little welfare (I was set to say "no welfare" until I remembered receiving reduced-price lunches in middle school. How could I forget those half-pints of "chunky" school district milk, three weeks past their expiration date?). My mother was particularly talented at home economics and personal finance, so she managed to keep everyone fed, clothed, shod, bathed and (mostly) out of trouble. We learned to make the best of available resources (Mom home-canned and dried a lot of fruit from our yard and encouraged us to forage for wild blackberries, chard and other freebie foods) and we learned how to handle being different from our peers (my brothers still wore Toughskins when everyone else was into designer jeans, and my sisters and I wore dresses and other clothes made by my talented auntie well into the mid-'80s).

We didn't always enjoy being frugal, but that was just how things had to be, especially after Dad died. Sometimes I was painfully conscious of being the only girl in a handmade dress, swimming through a hostile sea of sixth-grade girls in ringer T-shirts and Jordache jeans. But Mom's ingenuity and my personality type combined to create a mental state where, though I clearly didn't fit in at school, I rarely felt truly deprived at home. Consequently, my sense of home is a place that feels like a shelter from the sometimes unfair judgments of the world, comfortable, cozy and safe.

My adult life has been a see-saw between frugality (usually to get us out of debt) and profligacy (usually after some kind of windfall), but I've found that neither extreme brings me long-term happiness. Frugal living comes fairly naturally to me due to the way I was raised, but the option of being able to splurge on certain well-defined, well-loved items has also pushed me in the direction of minimalism. But neither extreme frugality nor minimal-ish living seems to fit me quite right. I've struggled to define the kind of life that hits the sweet spot, the middle ground of thriving, where one has neither an overgrowth of stuff nor is pruned back too much.

And even if I haven't achieved it yet, I think I've defined it. It's "lagom," a Swedish word that doesn't have a precise cognate in English, but which freely translates to "enough, just right, balanced, sufficient," etc. It doesn't mean "perfectionistic," that exhaustive effort to make everything just so; "lagom" means that things have come together really well without anyone going full-on Martha Stewart. It's like the Goldilocks Zone of home life.

So here's a slightly frivolous example of lagom living: I needed some Gruyère to make tonight's dinner, and I didn't have any. Minimalists would encourage me to get only a needful amount of the best Gruyère I could afford. Frugalists would tell me to avoid spending money; I should use whatever cheese I had available, or pick another recipe that doesn't use cheese. But I really wanted to make that recipe, and I could tell it wouldn't taste right if I used the Cheddar I had on hand. It would, though, be lagom to pick up some domestic Swiss cheese with a similar flavor profile to Gruyère, so that's what I did. And Captain Midnight, who ate the resulting meal, pronounced it groovy. (The lagom choice, btw, turned out to be way more frugal than the minimalistic one. Domestic Swiss in my area, not on sale, costs $4.50/lb., while domestic Gruyère starts at $18.90/lb. and goes up from there. Yikes. And the nature of the recipe is such that the Gruyère isn't going to taste four times as good as the Swiss, though it costs about four times as much. Life lesson: from now on I'm buying my cooking cheeses from the dairy, not the deli.)

Lagom living is also tailored to one's personal experience of just-rightness. If you know who you are as a person, what you really need and what you value, finding that sustainable sweet spot becomes an intuitive process. It's largely a matter of paring down the things you no longer want or need in your life to make room for what brings you delight. You are the expert at deciding what's lagom for you.

To that end, I've been going through the house trying to get rid of stuff I don't want, need or use. I've put a cardboard box next to the front door, and I keep dropping in items to be sold or donated. When it's full, it goes away. More space, more serenity. Lagom. See?

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