Gratitude In Things You Don’t

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure to learn more.

I was sitting in yoga class after a strenuous hour of being berated by a room full of heat, which I was convinced was too high for the particular class that I took, side-swaddling my right arm underneath my cheek bone, facing my husband as he reaps his benefits off of his mat and practice, when our instructor’s calm voice soothingly asks of us one thing before lifting ourselves off of the mat to end class:

Find gratitude in all the things you have in your life…

And gratitude in the things that you don’t.

As the rest of class pushed themselves gently up from their preferred side to continue on with their day, I stayed lying still a heartbeat longer to process what I just heard. I think I was in momentary shock.

If I am being quite honest, I have been lacking, the past few months, a sense of satisfaction with the way life has turned out to be. With the advent of taking on 6 days of dentistry for the first time in my life at the turn of the decade, while trying to manage a bakery, dog sit a few days a month, and partake in an international project to Sustain the Maldives with Bogobrush, my world has been in a state of overwhelm that has been hard to combat. My only saving graces are my husband, Starting From Within’s guidance, a few books, and yoga class.

At times like these, the standard advice of listing all the things you are grateful for in order to keep chins high appear to be good advice … at first glance.

However, the practice of acknowledging all the things one can be grateful for can feel a bit anti-climactic for minimalists, whose lists tend to end soon after it’s begun. Let’s face it, the list of things for minimalists are generally not very long. Which leaves one feeling like there isn’t much to be grateful for.

But what if we take a step back and look at the big picture. The world remains balanced, whether we recognize it or not. In order to have complete understanding, we need to extend our gratefulness to encompass both sides of the coin. After all, a list in gratitude of only the things we own can rob us of our enoughness. In order to grow our appreciation for the life of our choosing, we must compliment this list with all the things we don’t have, in gratitude. Such as…

  • Disease
  • War
  • Poverty
  • Famine
  • Hate
  • Clutter
  • Toxic relationships
  • Insecurity
  • Jealousy
  • Death
  • Isolation
  • Fear
  • Social constructs and norms
  • Peer pressure
  • Societal expectations
  • Addictions
  • Imprisonment
  • And for all minimalists, a long list of things that would otherwise steal our time and attention.

So when you feel life’s gotten away from you a bit, and that nothing seems to be going to plan, re-center and list all the things to be grateful for – whether you have them or not. Your world of positivity will expand, and perhaps you’ll start to notice a change in perception.

I mean, at least you’re not underwhelmed.

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Photographed: A few propagating leaves and East Fork‘s cake plates in Soapstone. 

Getting to Know: Marie Miao of Irro Irro

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure to learn more.

The founder of Irro Irro, Marie Miao, is a kindred spirit of sorts, balancing a career in the medical field with an entrepreneurial creative endeavor. Her company was born out of the recognition that the fashion industry was lacking in their inclusiveness of people with medical disabilities. Her experience with cancer patients has given her a unique perspective and her dedication to making a difference in the lives of those affected is very inspirational. Her efforts in creating an eco-lifestyle brand inclusive of adaptive lives is apparent in Irro Irro’s minimalist yet functional designs. More wondrous is her determination to create social change and her brazen advice for others who wish to do the same through creative work. 


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Hi Marie! Before we begin talking about Irro Irro, can you let our readers know a little bit about yourself?

Hi! Thank you for having me.

Outside of Irro Irro, I wear a few hats as a mother, wife, and oncology social worker. I am Japanese, but much of my early childhood was spent in Hong Kong, so I identify with Chinese culture as well. I am a total extroverted introvert. I push the extrovert out during pop-markets and social gatherings, but love and crave complete solace to rejuvenate.

I, too, am an extroverted introvert! Sometimes this polarity helps to grow a person and stretches their ability to fill in different roles. For example, I heard that your career as a social worker in the medical field inspired the creation of Irro Irro. How did that inspiration come about?

The inspiration came when I started making my own clothing for work. I have never been a slacks person, and find tight clothing uncomfortable (except during hot yoga), so I made a similar version of the current Chloe dress in our soft double gauze. When I wore the dress to work, I started receiving comments from my patients stating, “I wish I had something like this to wear during treatment.” That was my “AHA” moment … the moment when both of my passions (fashion and helping others) aligned.

From there, I altered the pattern knowing the physical ailments and side effects that can come from treatment. I also interviewed physical and occupational therapists and individuals that encounter daily hurdles with dressing.  Simple tasks like putting clothes on/off can be the biggest frustration for someone’s morning, and if I can ease some of that, I think it’s a start. There are very few modern adaptive clothing lines, and I’m hoping I can make a difference for a community that is often overlooked.

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The Chloe Dress

I think it’s wonderful that you’ve made medical inclusivity a pillar of your branding. It doesn’t cross the minds of most, and I feel that it is important to bring this awareness into the fashion industry. The ability to dress yourself, among other tasks, is a very powerful, albeit simple, affirmation for medically compromised patients.

But your dedication does not stop there. I heard that you also have a philanthropic pursuit that gives back to cancer patients?

You are too kind, thank you. Currently, 1% of Irro Irro proceeds goes to Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery (CLIMB). CLIMB provides training to clinical professionals (like myself) to incorporate CLIMB into their hospital or Cancer Center, which allows the organization to provide a support group for children ages 6-12 whose parent has been diagnosed with cancer. I run the program where I work, and I have personally seen the impact it can make on a family who is feeling lost or overwhelmed by a Cancer diagnosis.

Often the children and family members are overlooked because the main focus is, of course, the patient. But usually, the patient’s first thought is, “How do I tell my children?” or “How do I support my family?” This program provides a bridge for some of those worries, and I’m hoping as the brand grows, the percentage of proceeds will grow as well.

I am curious… what your feelings are about how the creative aspect of Irro Irrro feeds your medical profession, and vice versa? Do you feel as if the two are unrelated or work hand-in-hand?

Initially, I thought it was unrelated. As I grew more confident in the brand, I started to question “Why the divide?” Irro Irro wouldn’t be what it is without my professional background but naturally, the inner dialogue in my head kept minimizing my knowledge because I didn’t come from fashion. It’s interesting though, to be part-time corporate and part-time entrepreneurial and seeing the pros and cons to both. I’m not sure what the future will look like, but I’ve realized that this is part of my story, my unique journey, and I have to embrace each part.

Surely, working two professions requires more time and effort than working one. How do you find a balance between the two?

I’m not sure there’s a perfect balance, but I do prioritize self-care and I am an avid planner (with a color coordinated physical planner). To be honest, I am NEVER balanced in all areas of my life. Some days, I feel like an awesome mom, and some days, I’m left with guilt because I’m focusing on the business. My daughter is at an age where she loves to help, so I do try to involve her as much as possible, which helps with the guilt. And really, the mom guilt will always exist, I’m just learning to cope with it.

The biggest help for me to stay emotionally, mentally, and physically sane is hot yoga. My life has changed drastically since practicing hot yoga. It has challenged me in all aspects of my life, and I feel like I’m flushing out the toxins out of my body every time I take a class. It’s also one hour to myself to unplug, be in silence, and meditate. I make sure to add hot yoga in my calendar at least 3-4x week. It’s also helpful that I have a supportive husband who cheers me on even when I’m stuck in the office when he’d rather I be on the couch watching TV next to him. The sacrifices are real!

And vacations! Those are necessary even if it’s a stay-cation. It’s hard to shut my entrepreneurial brain off sometimes, but vacations help me feel passionate, inspired, and rejuvenated.

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Olivia Top in Cloud with Wave Necklace and Pavo Minor Earrings

“Irro” is a Japanese term, isn’t it? Would you care to share what Irro Irro means?

Irro Irro together means variety. I have always been fascinated by colors and I could stare at abstract paintings for hours just enjoying the depth and uniqueness of one color. It’s funny you ask, because while I’ve been trying to add more colors, many of my customers request black (which I totally get)! I’m working on a project that involves more color, so I’m hoping I can share that next year.

I am definitely one of those guilty of requesting black (or gray or beige…)! Your brand, however, still embodies a very minimalist design. How do your roots play a factor? Have you always been attracted to neutral palettes and stream-lined shapes?

Traveling to Japan and other countries always brings me some sort of inspiration, but I have always loved my neutrals and the sense of calm, peace, and centered-ness that they bring.  I’m embarrassed to share how many white shirts I own!

I do love a good bold color and pattern though; it evokes a different type of feeling. I think the same goes for shapes. My go-to’s are usually clean shapes but once in a while I love big statement pieces, especially for outerwear. One day, I hope to incorporate that into Irro Irro, as well.

I love how you mentioned centered-ness. I believe that simplicity helps to create space for a meaningful lifestyle. What are your thoughts on how minimalism (both in fashion and in the everyday) can foster an intentional life? 

I do believe a minimalist lifestyle brings forth intention, challenging you to only purchase what you need, and purchasing items that will bring long-term value into your life. Since fostering a minimalist wardrobe and lifestyle, I don’t press the “purchase” button so quickly, and scouring secondhand gems have been a fun challenge. It’s also challenged me to be creative, styling what I already have differently, and shopping around the home when re-decorating. I’ve always related a clutter-free home to a clutter-free mind. Simplifying all parts of my life, not over-extending myself (although I’m still working on that one!), and keeping routines as simple as possible has improved my overall mental health.

In this space, I try to highlight not only small businesses, but more specifically, people trying to create environmentally conscious products in socially responsible ways. Would you mind sharing with our readers ways in which you are trying to ethically produce your products, source materials that are eco-friendly, and reduce the amount of waste from your production line?

Of course! All of our textiles are 100% cotton or organic cotton and we are newly launching an up-cycled home line with the left over scraps from our production! I am also conscious about how our items are packaged, minimizing the amount of labels, using recycled wrapping paper, and bio-degradable mailers. I produce in small batches, so once the items are sold out, the color or style may never come back, making it more unique. Some other eco-friendly options I have been looking into are other textiles such as hemp, linen, recycled cotton, up-cycled denim, and incorporating more pieces made out of deadstock. I think there’s always room for improvement in this area, and I’m constantly thinking of ways to be better.

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Hand-dyed 100% cotton bag and Olivia Top paired with the Kiho Trousers in Terra Cotta

How would you advise others wishing to leverage creativity for social change?

What I love about creativity is that there is no right or wrong, and the sky is the limit. You could specialize in the most logical or scientific field and still be creative. I think if you’re passionate about bringing change into the world, just go for it! You are your own best advocate, and no one will have the passion and tenacity like you would about a fight you believe in. If you’re angry or frustrated about something, use that anger to bring positive change.

I have been told numerous times that Irro Irro wouldn’t succeed, but that has pushed me to prove them wrong. It’s helpful to have clear goals about the change you’d like to see, then start planning from there. Bringing social change can be uncomfortable for some people, so while it may take a bit longer, keep up the perseverance. It has been a roller coaster since the beginning, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

You’ve already accomplished so much with Irro Irro, having launched a mommy and baby line, as well as a number of accessories. How will Irro Irro grow from here?

Thank you.  There is so much I want to do with the brand, with some bigger projects that has been in the works behind the scenes. But for now, my goal is an eco-lifestyle brand inclusive of adaptive lives – adding in more modern adaptive styles for adults and children. I am self-funded, so the growth is taking longer than I’d like. But, I also believe good things take time, and I’m enjoying the journey for what it is.

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Aries Himalayan Salt Earrings and Olivia Top in Terra Cotta

Lastly, would you care to share some of your favorite socially and environmentally conscious brands?

There are so many that I love and admire, but a few that I personally love because of the people behind the brand are Hey Moon Designs, Two Days Off, and Selah Collection.

That’s awesome! I have already interviewed Gina Stovall of Two Days Off and am actually in the process of interviewing the founder of Selah Collection! What a small world.

If you would care to see what Marie has in store, check out Irro Irro and support local small business owners trying to create a positive impact in their community.

Frugal Challenge: Practice Minimalism

In my life (as it is now), minimalism came first. By practicing minimalism, everything good in my life fell into place, financial clarity being one of them. Every time I choose a life of less stuff, I enforce a habit of not relying on external stimuli to make me feel whole. I am also deconstructing a fallacy that we were taught from birth, one that says we can buy our way to happiness. Minimalism is, after-all, a modern by-product of Zen teachings on how happiness resides within ourselves and the worlds our minds create. Any external stimuli only prevents us from tapping into our inner state of calm or peace by acting as a distraction from true happiness. Without the material things to distract me, I am able to focus on the more important (non-material things) in my life, such as paying down $575k in student debt! I can confidently say that I would not have been as successful with finding frugality and working towards financial independence without first practicing the art of saying Goodbye, Things.

My frugal challenge for the month of October is to start practicing minimalism. After all, it goes hand-in-hand with frugality. Practicing minimalism can cut down costs in many ways. Here are a few!

  • LESS SHOPPING, ERGO LESS SPENDING: After you’ve de-cluttered a lot of your items, you will naturally develop a hesitancy with buying something again (unless it’s something you realized you really need or want). The de-cluttering process, when done right, is a tedious process for the average American because of how much stuff we tend to accumulate. I guarantee that once you’ve really pared down, buying things is not as attractive as it once was, which means you will spend less money on shopping.
  • LESS STUFF MEANS LESS LIVING SPACE: Having less things allow for a smaller home, which usually leads to cheaper rent! Many minimalists find that once they are freed from the burden of material objects, they are suddenly free to live alternative lifestyles, such as pursuing the small space movement! Housing is one of the largest expenses in most people’s budget, so reducing the cost of housing will greatly catapult your path towards financial freedom.
  • LESS UNNECESSARY SPENDING FOR REPAIRS AND REPLACEMENT. Minimalism is a lesson in being grateful for the things we already have. Because minimalists surround themselves with only their most beloved things, they are more likely to preserve, mend, and fix a broken thing than they are to throw it away and replace it. They aren’t going to buy things for convenience sake and they are more invested in maintenance. Because of this, they save more money.
  • LESS KEEPING UP WITH THE JONES’S: Minimalists do not participate in keeping up with the Jones’s. In fact, they think the Jones’s are making a dying, rather than making a living. And minimalists prefer to live life rather than work themselves to death in order to buy material goods. And since minimalists do not participate in upward social comparisons, they are not as easily influenced or frequently bombarded by and with advertisements. They aren’t called upon to be consumers. And if they are, the calling is easily ignored. Overall, they don’t spend money in order to keep an appearance. Minimalists save their dollars, preferring to build wealth rather than build social status.
  • LESS STRESS RELIEF BINGES. When we are stressed, we tend to spend in order to make ourselves feel better. We want to take a vacation to run away from stressful work. We go out to drink during happy hour after a difficult 8-5. We binge on food and eat our misery away. We even have retail therapy. A practice in minimalism leads to more space physically, emotionally, and mentally. Minimalism reduces stress by reducing the external stimuli in our environments. With all this Zen, there is less cost dedicated to stress relief practices.
  • NO EXPENSIVE FRIVOLOUS EVENTS. Minimalists do not want to celebrate big life events with lavish parties, nor do they want to receive a tower of gifts. What will they do with all of this stuff? I may be speaking for myself, but my ideal celebration involves people and homemade food in a warm setting. I like gatherings in small spaces because you can feel the presence of others and there’s no nooks and crannies to hide in and stare lovingly into your phone. A good example of this was our wedding. We got married in an empty warehouse and the decor was handmade. My father tied gold streamers onto a string, and I made a backdrop for the photobooth area. My aunt collected wild flowers and put them in vases, and Mike’s grandmother made cookies and her famous magic bars. Our friends provided local beer for the reception as their wedding gift. We hired a taco truck and had donuts for desert. I’d imagine the same would go for children’s parties, funerals, graduation, & c. No frivolous events means no expensive events!

These are just a few ways that minimalism can help build a frugal lifestyle. The truth is, minimalism goes a step further than frugality. When I became a minimalist, I reduced the distractions in my life. I honed in on who I was and what made me happy. Because of this recently tapped in energy, I performed better at work and increased my income. I then found a few interests that became side hustles (writing being one of them). This further allowed me to make more money. And as I became happier, I also became less dependent on buying my way to happiness. My work made me happy, and I funneled even more time into my passions. And so the cycle snowballed, and slowly, our debt repayment changed from 25 years to 10 years to 9 year, to 7 years, to hopefully less than 6 years! All because I got rid of my things.

As all minimalists argue, if minimalism involves shedding physical burdens in the form of material possessions in order to be liberated to live the life that really matters, why isn’t is called maximalism? Frugal maximalism.

Intentional Living: How Minimalism Creates Happiness

I believe that many people live their lives in search of happiness. I also believe that the search for happiness is a misguided path. The way I see it, our souls are actually in search of something else. It isn’t happiness that we seek, but rather, noveltyHappiness just happens to be a by-product of a novel experience.

It is unfortunate that many companies target consumers who think that the search for happiness is what we live for. Companies sell the idea that purchasing new products will bring buyers happiness, as if somehow happiness can be found in an article of clothing, or a brand new car. We are deluged into thinking that, indeed, happiness does lie in new things because the invitation of a new thing into our homes is a novel experience, and so, for a moment, we are happy. We are confusing the two. We must stop to realize or remember that the joy we felt when trying on a new outfit at the store was quite short-lived. And the thrill we felt when driving a new car died with its first scratch. When we pause to think of these truths, it becomes easy to know that our things do not actually keep us happy. But knowing this is not enough. It is arguably more important to understand why.

When we buy something new, it is a novel experience. But once something we wanted suddenly becomes ours, it shifts our perspective. Our minds adjust and the thing that was once new immediately becomes old. For example, we forget about that new tank top we bought at the beginning of summer, and we get too lazy to wash our cars. We start to suddenly covet OTHER things. The mind is a fickle thing.

Understanding that our brains adapt to the current state (and in a rather quick manner) means that we are aware of the ways in which we can control our ability to be happy. Having more makes ourselves used to the stimuli of novelty, which decreases our perception of happiness with each additional thing. Much in the same way, having less actually returns us to a level of excitability with the smallest of stimuli. It lowers the bar that triggers our ability to have joy. In lowering this bar, we can become happy, more.

Fugio Sasaki, author of Goodbye, Things is one of the most celebrated minimalists in Japan. He has decluttered almost all of his things, living with very little. He is a great exemplar of reducing down to the bare necessities. For example, when it comes to towels, he now uses a single hand towel for drying his hands, his body, his dishes, and more. By getting rid of the fluffy towels that many homes house, he has reset his bar to just the one hand towel. His comments how quickly he adjusted to this tiny towel being the norm. Note that the mind does not perceive this towel as subpar. Our ability to adjust for variance is a gift, in that way. But, when Fugio does use a nicer towel to wipe his hands with (say, at a restaurant or at a friend’s house), that experience leads to a spark of joy. A momentary feeling of happiness. A perception of luxury, one that a person who regularly uses such towels will not experience. Therefore, by ridding ourselves of the excesses in life, by becoming minimalist, we are giving ourselves more opportunities to have novelty in our lives.

It is human for things to never feel enough, and that’s okay. In order to make life enough, we need to work at being more aware. And minimalism is the practice that attunes us to that higher awareness. Having less is a practice. It doesn’t come natural … not to me, anyway. It’s an intentionality that gives us the opportunity to live in a certain space. And that space allows for more opportunities to be happy.

 

A Minimalist Mouthwash

The Dental Series was created in collaboration with Bogobrush in an attempt to make dental health care not only important, but COOL, too! In it, we answer common questions and address current topics in the dental field. When Bogobrush is not helping spread the word about oral healthcare, they act as a source for ethically made, sustainable toothbrushes, with a one-for-one give-back program catering low-income communities that may not have access to something as simple as a toothbrush.


When it comes to mouthwash, I am unabashedly not a big fan, for multiple reasons. One unfortunate thing about mouthwash is the packaging. Always packaged in plastic bottles, it’s enough to make any zero-plastic-user cringe at the sight. Secondly, some mouthwashes contain more than 20% alcohol. Think of the strong smell that you experience when you open a bottle of Listerine. How about the burning sensation you feel when you swish the solution around, waiting for the moment that you could spit it right back out? That’s the alcohol’s doing. Sometimes, the alcohol can be a bit strong for the gums, and I would typically suggest choosing a mouthwash that is labeled “alcohol-free” for a gentler rinse. Additionally, the health benefits of mouthwash are disputed in the dental community. Some claim that people who rinse with mouthwash more than three times a day increase their chances of oral cancer. Some say it slightly elevates blood pressure. While I am not sure whether I completely believe those two claims, when it comes to protecting your teeth from cavities, many dental professionals agree that mouthwash doesn’t come close to the effectiveness of a toothbrush or floss. While it gives people that false sense of confidence in their oral health, mouthwashes arguably only temporarily improve one’s breath. And lastly, they’re expensive! As a frugalist, a recurring cost for a mouth rinse with limited pros does not really jive with me. In general, I do not find that the pros of using mouthwash outweighs the cons.

I treat people in a low-income community, mostly, and when they come to me looking for mouthwash advice, I give them a recipe for a minimalist one. No surprise here. What IS a surprise is when I tell them that I do not buy mouthwash myself, and that my rinse of choice is nothing more than warm salt water, twice a day, swished for thirty seconds. Salt water rinses are great especially for the gums. It is my first line of defense whenever I see gum inflammation. I liken it to how salt water at the beach can heal the skin. So what makes it so great?

HEALTH BENEFITS OF A SALT WATER RINSE

  • It works by increasing the pH balance of your mouth. Bacteria likes to multiply in acidic environments, so by making the oral cavity more alkaline, we are making it more difficult for the bacteria to survive. This includes the bacteria that make our breath smell bad in the first place!
  • It is not irritating to mucous membranes, because it has a similar concentration of salts and minerals as our bodies do.
  • It is affordable and accessible to ANYONE.
  • It’s simple to make (see recipe below).
  • It is more widely embraced, especially when treating people who prefer holistic, natural methods. Not everyone wants a prescription for an anti-microbial rinse when they come to you looking for advice regarding puffy gums. Some are just searching for better oral hygiene practices, and maybe a rinse recommendation.

FAQs

“Doesn’t the salt abrade the teeth?”

Well, this is why warm water is important! Once salt is added to warm water, it dissolves immediately and we don’t have to worry about the grittiness of it. Our enamel stays safe.

“But how does it improve my breath?”

It works by reducing the bacteria that causes bad breath in the first place. Some patients complain that they don’t feel as if they’re breath is “as fresh” as when they use Listerine. I think that’s what makes people return to these mouthwash companies. But “fresh smelling breath” does not necessarily equate to a healthy mouth. It’s an illusion. When I ask people what fresh breath smells like, they say “minty”. When I ask them what fresh breath feels like, they say “cool” or “cold”. Neither of these are natural. They are socially taught. They are also very strong habit-forming experiences. Mouthwash companies want you to keep returning to their product. So they essentially make a product that, when it is missing from your life, is blatantly missing. Getting used to being without store-bought mouthwash takes time but once we’ve gotten that expectation of cool, minty freshness out of our minds, it becomes a simple matter of moving our point of reference. I have had people return and say that once they’ve gotten used to warm salt water rinses, they now view Listerine as “excessively strong and pungent”. Which it is. I remember the first time I ever tried mouthwash. I had that burning tingling sensation, and watering eyes. I was probably in my late teens. Over time, I’ve gotten immune to that feeling, expecting it even. It’s what makes people feel like they have a clean mouth, when in reality, they may not.

“Do I need to rinse my mouth at all?”

If you were using store-bought mouthwash, I would say it’s debatable, because I am not sure of its efficacy. But I do recommend salt water rinses twice a day for EVERYONE, to keep up with your gum health. Brushing and flossing will ultimately, still, be the best for your teeth.

A MINIMALIST MOUTH RINSE

Dissolve 1 tsp. of salt in 8 ounces of warm salt water. Swish for 30 seconds, twice a day, morning and night. Voila!

OVER -THE-COUNTER MOUTHWASH

There are two types of mouthwashes, generally speaking, which can be bought over the counter: Cosmetic and Therapeutic. If you wish to buy a therapeutic mouthwash, check the ADA’s site for a list of mouthwashes that have been granted an ADA seal. Look for this seal when perusing your store’s shelves. If you wish, you may seek out mouthwashes with the following ingredients:

  • Cetylpyridinium Chloride;
  • Chlorhexidine;
  • Essential oils;
  • Fluoride;
  • Peroxide.

These ingredients are found in therapeutic mouthwashes. Additionally, I would opt for mouthwashes that contain no alcohol. It is also important to note that mouthwash is not recommended for children under 6 years of age.

So there you have it. My quick, holistic, minimalist, zero-plastic, frugal, professional two-cents on mouthwash.

Small Space Living

Tip 06// The Most Sustainable Couch

I am thirty, and I have still yet to own a couch of my choosing. Every couch that has permeated my living space has either been already provided by previous tenants or handed down to me by someone I know. What does that say about me, exactly?

While it is quite obvious that our personal successes are not defined by an ability to own a couch, I think it is implied that a medical professional of thirty would have been able to afford one by now. But buying a couch is no easy thing. In fact, buying ANYTHING for me is never an easy thing these days. The entire process involves a hefty amount of serious pondering and a mild case of deep-skin writhing.

In this line of work, I am approached by others in general for my thoughts on stuff. In a sense, my job here is to help make a value judgement. I am presented with the following questions: Who made it? How is it made? Where is it made? What materials are used? Why is it necessary? Which option is best, in terms of sustainability both in terms of the environment, the social implications, the global effects, and least importantly, my personal repercussions. It’s a lot of pressure to put on a matcha whisk, or a set of pajamas. It’s even more pressure on large scale purchases, such as a brand new couch.

I have been in search for a sustainable couch for years. Ever since my husband (then-fiance) and I moved into our own place two months after I graduated dental school in 2016. Specifically, I have looked for a couch wherein I can trace exactly where it was made, whose hands were used to make them, and in what environmental conditions. I have yet to find one that comes close. Most furniture companies don’t even bother to tag couches as sustainable, and those that do only involve a small level of sustainability (like using reclaimed wood without any consideration for the fabrics of the upholstery) that I cannot even take them seriously.

So then I started to reach out to acquaintances about possibly fabricating a couch. Our favorite piece of furniture in our home is a 12 foot dining table hand-made by the two girls who provided our wedding furniture. We thought maybe we could do the same with the couch. I reached out to a fellow wood-worker-baker and an at-home clothing seamstress to ask about making a sustainable wood frame and sourcing end-of-the-mill fabrics. But sourcing the fabric will take lots of work researching jobbers and the wood-worker friend was busy with current projects as well as a baking schedule. It wasn’t the path to take.

So we turned to the next sustainable option, which is to buy a used and unwanted couch from Craigslist, which would prevent an additional item from entering a landfill. I know that it would put us in the same spot as before, owning a couch that’s a hand-me-down of sorts, but at least it would be a couch of our choosing. When we went to Melbourne in January, we stayed at a really nice AirBNB, and we fell in love with a mid-century modern couch in their living room.

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I was surprised to find a similar couch made by West Elm selling at Craigslist for $800. The same couch is still selling at West Elm for double the price. While West Elm sells some sustainable products, couches are unfortunately not one of them. But sustainability as defined by environmental impact is achieved with this option, and the fact that it was already owned means the buying of this Craigslist couch does not have an ADDITIONAL social impact or global effect, except for the positive effect of side swiping it from the landfill. So where’s the hitch?

It all came down to sustainability as defined by my personal life. $800 is no chump change. Maybe  in proportion to brand new couches (why do they cost so much?) $800 seems like a steal. Perhaps it is. But in terms of my personal financial goals, $800 is almost double what we set aside each month for travel. $800 is almost three months worth of groceries, or eight months worth of dining out. $800 is a year’s worth of cat food for Theo, and probably all the Christmas and birthday presents we want to buy. It is one-third of our portion of the mortgage, which is helping us build equity – can a couch do that? It is 12% of our monthly loan payment, which is buying us freedom. How much freedom can a couch buy you?

In the end, we chose the most sustainable couch, which is the couch we already had. It buys us freedom from the cycle of continually searching for something better. It helps build us equity by not taking way from our ability to build equity. It fuels our financial goals, without taking away from our time. In the end, it came down to the answer of not which couch is best, but which couch is good enough. That’s what sustainability is all about.

I  sometimes wonder how well these superlatives, and our quest for the best of something, end up serving us. What about the possibility of replacing better or best with good enough? The reality of my own day-to-day life is that living simply and keeping a pared down collection of well-loved items often isn’t about having the best. It’s about making the best of what I already have.

Erin Boyle, ReadingMyTeaLeaves, Simple Matters

Like Erin, we search for ways to make the best of what we have. It’s the ultimate way to live without forever needing to chase. In our space, we have shades where walls should be, wooden panels where doors should be, and a bed where some might put a living room. But it IS enough, and there we still sleep soundly.

Small Space Living

Tip 04// Having Bare White Walls

If you walk into our home, you’ll notice a certain spaciousness. Part of that spaciousness is helped by the lack of things, sure. Some may think the answer also lies in a vaulted ceiling, and yes, the array of bright California daylight streaming through the windows gives the home a bit more freshness that you can breathe in. But this isn’t what causes that feeling of space, for I’ve been in plenty a home with vaulted ceilings and bright windows, without feeling the peace. The subtlety that our home is plentiful in but which one may not recognize as serving a function, is the bareness of our plain, white walls. 

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I love plain, white walls. I love how fresh they feel, how they emit a sense of newness and emptiness, like blank slates full of possibility. When you move into a new home, the walls are white, to allow you to dream of what could be, rather than what is. I like to keep that door to creativity open, to live in a place where anything can happen.

I like the way that you can easily detect a smudge, and just as easily cover it with some fresh paint, without worrying so much about the layers blending in with each other, or achieving the perfect shade. White on white is simple, but painting gray on existing gray makes darker gray, and that’s too complicated. It’s emancipating how easily you could fix the problem. A can of paint is equivalent to the white out pen of adulthood, a magic eraser per say.

I like the way light reflects off of them, and how they can make a room feel brighter somehow, bigger almost. Living in a tiny home, that’s kind of what we need. I like how they accentuate the furniture, rather than hide them in their shadow. It’s almost as if it draws attention to the actual things that fill the home, rather than have the things hide the home itself. I like how they reflect the warmth of wood, and the coolness of metal. Dark walls wouldn’t do the same.

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I like them better when they’re bare. Have you noticed how picture frames suck you in, open shelving collects clutter, and anything else at eye-level distracts your attention? Have you noticed how rooms feel smaller when the walls are covered with hanging treasures … ever felt claustrophobic, or suffocated? I like that people walk in here, and open up just by being in the white wall’s presence. I like that they don’t stop mid-conversation to comment on a painting, or a picture frame. While it may be nice to walk into a home and comment on the childhood photographs of the inhabitants of said home, perhaps, as a means to start a conversation or reminisce, I also think it detracts from an ability to speak to each other of things far less superficial.  I am not saying this isn’t the way to decorate, for that’s a personal choice, but I am saying that when I stare out into space and regress into the inner workings of my own mind (as I oft do), it helps to achieve clarity when looking upon a blank space.How often do we get to converse, undeterred these days? How often do we get to think, without other inputs? It’s a gift, these minimalist walls. 

Likewise, when I walk into a home teeming with things, I immediately feel a difference in my ability to breathe. Never you mind whether said things are stuffed safely in a closet, or organized neatly into stacks on a shelf, but it’s almost as if I can smell the mustiness (things DO have a smell). In smaller living quarters, the quality of air more poignantly matters, and I like breathing in the emptiness. The walls bleed a sense of calm that I cannot explain but can within my bones feel. 

So if you ask me about small space living and a means to make them feel less small, start with these havens of white. My mantra of ‘do nothing’ stands. Allow for these sacred walls to elicit more by having less: more meaningful conversations, more in-depth thinking, more breathing room, more living space, more freedom, more possibility. 

Does any one else feel the same?

For those wondering, our walls are painted this Sherman Williams shade of egret white.

 

Using Gifts to Talk About Mindful Consumption with Younger Generations

When was the first time you were introduced to the concept of gifts? If it’s like most people, it was likely at an age when you were not yet capable of comprehending what a gift was! Growing up, we all were taught to expect gifts and to ask for things, even when we were too young to expect anything at all. From our very first birthday, we were taught that gifts come hand-in-hand with any celebration. Aunts and uncles would ask for wish lists, and parents would prompt you to write a letter to Santa. In this sense, gifts were one of the first factors in propelling our lifestyles towards one of consumption. This Christmas, I implore you to change the way we talk about gifts with children.

ON TALK OF GIFTS:

Instead of asking children what they want to receive for Christmas, ask them what they want to do. Avoid the talk of gifts all-together. I ask kid patients who come into the dental office what they have done thus far to prepare for the holidays rather than ask them for their wish list. If a child says, “bake cookies”, I ask them if they plan to give some to their next-door neighbor or friends at school. If they say “write a letter to Santa”, I ask them if they are also going to write a letter to their sibling, telling them how important they are. If a child brings up gifts, I ask them to tell me the one thing they have in their life right now that makes them feel most gifted, whether that’s their family, their warm bed, a hobby, or a special moment.

ON WRITING WISH LISTS:

If you are writing a letter to Santa as a family, perhaps challenge a child to write only ONE material item that they “want”. I am not saying deprive a kid of STUFF. I am simply saying to limit how much of it surrounds them. Your child likely does not need a dozen more toys. A statistic states that the average child in the developed world owns more than 200 toys, but plays with only 12 of them on average a day. Additionally, the US children make up 3% of the children in the world, but owns over 40% of the toys in the world. So as a non-mother, I do dare say that your child should only ask for one material item. My suggestion? Ask them to request experiences instead. Perhaps your child will ask for their favorite meal, or a venture to the movie theatres. Mayhaps they ask to adopt a pet, or to spend an afternoon helping others at a soup kitchen. Maybe they’ll ask to see far-away grandparents this year, or for world peace. Children are so brilliant when it comes to ideas. They may surprise you, let alone Santa.

ON CONVERSATIONS ABOUT CONSUMERISM:

If you ARE gifting kids something, start a conversation with them about where their gift comes from. Let them know that their item affects the environment, and the people on it. Tell them how. Spend some time with them researching who made the gift, and what purchasing the gift means. It’s important to have them understand that things do not just magically appear from the sky, even if Santa does. In knowing this one simple fact, they will become more mindful about the source of everything that enters their lives, rather than dismissively assume that our consumption has no effect. In doing this, we can raise children with enough awareness to question.

ON MINDFUL GIFTS:

There are many ways to start the conversation with mindful gift-giving.

  • Fair + Simple launched their Fair + Little line this year. The collection consists of curated goods hand-sewn by women in the Philippines. Each gift is meant to change the way children views stuff. There is a card for every purchase, telling the child a little bit about the maker, and how the gift helps others. There is also a call to action that prompts each child to get out in nature, and become treasure hunters. Inside the pockets are hidden treasures from the founder, Molly. To learn more about Fair + Simple, check out my interview with the founder.
  • KrochetKids has a collection of children’s knitted goods, ranging from beanies to stuffed animals. Each product is hand-signed by its maker, thereby opening the doors for you to tell them that their items are made by hand by a human being, not a machine. You can also have them write a Thank You letter to their maker, and send it to them online!
  • Farmer’s Market and Artist Fairs are great ways to have a child actually meet the hands behind their gift. They can even speak with the maker and ask them questions, such as how they got started making these things and what was the hardest part about its production.