Sustainable, simple living may be everyone’s new aspiration, but there’s nothing like a tiny apartment (Hi, New York City readers) to turn it from trend to necessity. Erin Boyle writes about simplifying your life on her blog Reading My Tea Leaves with a practical, neighborly-advice approach. While other mavens in the decluttering realm might ask if something brings you joy, Erin asks, “Does this do good work for you?” I went to see Erin in her Brooklyn apartment (confirming it’s as lovely IRL as it looks online) to talk about her new book Simple Matters, why people are obsessed with how to store their bar soap, and why we get more from living with less.
“I started blogging in 2009 but it was purely recreational. After leaving a full-time editorial position, I started focusing on my blog full-time in September 2014. Because I write about my life and the way I live, I’ll often float ideas by my family—and if it seems a little close for comfort, I’ll back off. I’m usually writing about things that I’m hammering out for myself, so in that sense, there are some things I’m less interested in hammering out publicly. Through the blog I receive an enormous amount of queries and emails, which can be really nice but occasionally overwhelming. The questions can be so specific, like, how do you manage to store your bar soap? Hmm…in the shower? I don’t mean to belittle the question. People are interested in finding a community and figuring out how other people figure out their lives—even the mundane details—and I hope I can be a voice of reason or understanding in that pursuit. I have a rainy day folder where I file all of the nice emails I receive, so I can go back and look at them—especially when I get an email that’s not so great. The few negative voices can easily drown out the many positive ones, so it’s important to have a spot that does the opposite.
I think there’s sometimes this idea that I spend my days sipping tea, thinking thoughts with a little notebook in hand. I might write about quiet things and try to live a simple life, but there’s the daily rigmarole of running a business and having a child and cleaning the apartment and making dinner.
I’m trying to live a life that is peaceful but obviously that doesn’t always happen.
Sometimes I look at my life before having my daughter, Faye, and think, how did I not run five marathons and build five successful businesses and travel the globe? Having a baby is all-consuming and I marvel at what I didn’t get done before. There are moments when I’m not my best self, or when I lose my cool, but in general I feel like we figure it out. For example, we had no idea how we were going to afford childcare before we had Faye—but we’ve done whatever needed to happen to make it work.
With a blog, it’s such a privilege to be able to get your thoughts out, have people read them and the next day they’re onto something else. The book process was a little darker and more lonely than I anticipated—there’s so much introspection and finality. There was this element of, ‘Am I going to portray my life in the way that I want to?’ I was rereading it last night and there was this sentence where I thought, ‘I should have said this, not that.’ But there’s always going to be something. There’s an opportunity for negative voices in any creative project. Elizabeth Gilbert has written so eloquently about this topic in Big Magic. I read it after I had written my book and was like, dammit! I wish I could have read it first! But, it still felt so affirming.
As in—you poured your heart and soul into this project, and now it’s done. Move onto the next thing—don’t get stymied in perfectionism.
Wanting your work to be good is a noble pursuit but it can also be crippling—it’s important to keep moving. I could be like, ‘Who am I to write a book? What do I have to say? Other people have done more and lived in smaller spaces!’ But who cares? This is my story. It’s a constant effort to plow forward. Especially because there is constant feedback with a blog, and some of it is not very generous or encouraging. You don’t want to think you’re a disappointment to anyone, but you need to maintain your sense of self. You have to think, ‘Fuck it! If I’m disappointing you, you should probably reassess your disappointments!’ We are all doing our best, and we need to be a little bit brave every day. I wrote something last year about how the daily role of being a parent requires courage. Some people were like, that’s courage? And I’m like, yeah! You don’t need to be a soldier in war to be courageous. In the creative space, it requires courage to say, ‘This idea I have is worth sharing.’ Going back to the whole simplicity thing, deciding to live simply or separate yourself from a mainstream lifestyle also requires some amount of bravery or confidence.
All of us deserve to be confident.
When think I back on moments of joy, they are all experiences of humanity. None of them are like, ‘Wow, the day I got that brand new radio, my life changed.’ Which is not to say you can’t appreciate beautiful things. But I think anyone’s answer to the question of what brings them joy—if you really asked them—would be that it’s their relationships and experiences. It’s interesting when you think about others who have more than you, who aren’t necessarily happier. I know people who make a bazillion more dollars than I do, who send their kids to private schools, who live in much bigger apartments—but they still perceive their lives as challenging to some extent. You have got to find your own happiness, because if you strive for that material thing to make a difference, that difference will never come. You have to recognize and appreciate what you have instead of always wanting more.
A good way to start simplifying your life is to figure out what is working for you. I mean that pretty literally, as in, what does good work for you? Those are the things you should keep around. Everything else shouldn’t bother you. So many of us are overwhelmed with choice. For example, there’s this weird one-upmanship with baby stuff and research—like, ‘Have you researched all of the million childcare options?’ But all of that is clutter too. I want to find the one solution, not ten solutions to weigh against each other. For me, that’s just noise. I don’t want to deal with it and to some extent I haven’t. Before I gave birth, I didn’t spend weeks researching midwives—I found a great practice and went with them.
It’s OK to make a simple choice.
The reward you get from doing so is time. You get back the time you spend hemming and hawing over a decision, or sorting through a mess, or switching out one comforter with another because of the season. You’re left with more time to enjoy the things that work.”
Photographed by Nicole Franzen
As told to Amy Woodside, December 2015