September 15, 2014

An Interview with Tsh Oxenreider

Tsh Oxenreider.  All photos used by permission.

[caption id="attachment_10191" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Tsh Oxenreider.  All photos used by permission. Tsh Oxenreider. All photos used by permission.[/caption]

Those who might be wondering about the benefits of adopting a more pared-down lifestyle could find a compelling answer in Tsh Oxenreider, who is part of the vanguard that harnessed the internet to promote simple living amongst a global audience. Tsh, who hails from Texas and now lives, for the time being, in Oregon, writes about the ways in which the acts of daily life (work, play, parenting) gain a certain clarity when approached slowly, deliberately, and unencumbered by physical and mental clutter. The Art of Simple, which began as a one-woman operation in 2007, now boasts over 20 regular contributors and a thriving online forum.

Very shortly, Tsh and her family of five will begin a 12-month journey that will take them around the world. They will chronicle their experiences on their travel website, which also discusses their pre-trip planning. The Oxenreiders’ commitment to living simply and intentionally carries over to their philosophy of travel: they will travel slowly so they can gain a fuller experience and appreciation of where they are each day, they will use their resources wisely, and all family members will be full partners in the travel experience (this means, in part, that everyone carries his or her own stuff, even the 4-year-old).

Amidst all the packing and organizing for the first leg of their trip (China!), and even though it was her birthday, Tsh kindly agreed to answer some questions for us.

TOM BIHN CREW: First, happy birthday! I have a couple of “with age comes wisdom” questions for you. One: what advice would you give to your 27-year-old self? What about your 17-year-old self? and two, what is one great untruth, mindset, or perspective that you believed or held that you are proud to have let go of?

TSH OXENREIDER: I tell people that my favorite thing about getting older is realizing how little I actually know. Ten years ago, I just became a mom, and even though I knew I didn't have parenting figured out, I think I still had this idea that I had some semblance of control over her personality, over who she'd become, over her preferences. I'd tell my 27-year-old self that my job as her parent is to give her both roots and wings—grounding, values, and love, yes; but also the freedom to discover and explore who she really is.

I'd tell my 17-year-old self that life honestly really gets great around age 30. Yes, the teen years and twenties are important, but use that time to discover who you are, meet lots of people, take calculated risks, and try things you'd never dream you'd like. That decade is when you have the most freedom and the least amount of responsibility—wield it wisely, because it goes in a blink.

And I'm terribly proud that I'm pretty aware of how little I know. Back when I started my blog (seven years ago now), I was much more certain of how black and white life worked. I'm happy to let go of that certainty, and to welcome life's mysteries and questions, and that listening well is one of the best qualities you can develop. It's by listening that we learn, and everyone has something to teach us. It's actually funny you should ask all this, because I have an ebook about this very thing—the twenty things I'd tell my twenty-something self (it's free for anyone who subscribes to our travel blog).

TBC: The Art of Simple reaches tens of thousands of people, but some readers may not recognize that you’ve been blogging/writing online for quite a few years. Can you talk about your blog’s evolution and the community that’s grown out of it? Have there been any big surprises?

TO: We've been around for a long time—late 2007, so basically when the Internet was still written with chisel in stone. When we started, there really weren't many blogs about living simply, but now they're everywhere (a good thing, in my opinion). So since we were one of the few voices, we originally focused more on the science of simple living—how to pay off debt or how to have a paper-free kitchen, for example. Now, we focus more on the art—the why, the encouragement, the you-can-do-this the hooray-for-living-unconventionally. It's our strength, and it's really the heart of everything we write. We exist to encourage people that they can say no to the status quo and live according to their values, they can do things like travel. It just takes planning, intention, and resolve. We also used to be a network of several blogs, covering everything from food to homeschooling to design. Now, we just focus on both simple and unconventional living, with an emphasis on travel on the travel channel (though we still technically own several other blogs dedicated to things like food and parenting).

TBC: Many of the posts on The Art of Simple have to do with relinquishing certain ideas or assumptions in order to do what is more real or true for you as an individual. Yet, many of those assumptions are linked closely with values and subjectivities that have developed over the course of history, whether of a culture, a country, a family. What are your thoughts on the concept of “tradition”, especially when there’s a tension between wanting to uphold some practices or beliefs (traditions) and divesting yourself of others?

TO: I definitely don't think tradition is a bad thing—I'm a big believer in family history based on from generation to generation, and I realistically understand that we really can't divorce ourselves from our own culture and worldview, much of which comes from a passed-down history and tradition (even if we're unaware). One of the reasons I remind people that there's no one right way to "do" simple living is because we're all different, and we all come from different cultures and perspectives. For some people, tradition is more important than others, so they place a higher value on living life the way they were taught as a kid—and I'm okay with that. The problem lies, I believe, where we just don't think about the why behind anything we do. We just tow the line and never question, "Hey—does this actually make sense for for my family, for me?" If it does, great. But don't just live life on autopilot. Question whether you're in pursuit of a stable, 9 to 5 job because it's what you want, or is it just because you think that's the definition of a responsible adult?

TBC: You’re about to embark on several months of round-the-world travel with your family.  You have written about downsizing, decluttering, and preparing mentally for the shift in day-to-day living that will come with full-time travel. Can you talk about a challenge or set of challenges you and/or your family had to overcome during the process of this experience?

TO: Well, we've always been big fans of living simply and not having clutter, so we didn't have to get rid of a ton of stuff we didn't want (though there was some of that still!). I think the challenge was more mental—believing that yes, we really can risk trying to live out of backpacks for a year, and yes, it is worth forking over a TON of money for those plane tickets. It's easy to start second-guessing yourself, even though it's something you've planned for years. There's also just a lot of nuts and bolts to handle here—we sold our house, put stuff in storage, my husband's parents are carsitting our minivan, most of school this year is via iPad and Kindle, etc., systems need to be in place to keep the blogs running on the go, etc. None of those things just happen. Lots of moving parts.

TBC: Your website promotes living simply as an art, balanced with practicality, a theme that carries over to your travel site. What items are you bringing with you that will help you maintain the artistry you apply to life? What items have you learned are must-have and quantifiably practical for you when you travel?  

TO: Ooh, I love this question. Well, I wrote about my clothing and my kids' clothing, and hope soon to write about the "other" stuff we're packing. I'm a big fan of packing light, because it helps me pack light mentally and emotionally as well—one thing that'll hopefully help us is our Scrubba washbag, so that we can do laundry on the go and pack fewer clothes. We're also streamlining the kids' school and doing a lot of it on the iPad, and though I never thought I'd see the day, the older two both have Kindles so they can stay solid readers. I'm also big into natural beauty and health care products, so things like a GoToob full of coconut oil can be multipurpose, as well as olive oil to clean my face, etc. This sort of light travel allows more room for things like my husband's water coloring tools, a small DSLR camera, sketchbooks for all five of us, and the like.

TBC: Also related to packing: when people ask “what are you packing?”, they generally mean “what physical items are you taking?” But what intangible things will you bring with you? What skills, knowledge, and attitudes do you think will be most valuable on this journey?

TO: I think one thing our family does well is embrace the idea of “home” being “wherever we are together.” We've lived in a lot of places, so while it's not always easy to say goodbye, we've learned the fine art of doing it well. The Internet helps enormously in us being able to move about the cabin, so to speak, so our kids have already experienced and understand the beauty of things like Voxer to keep up with grandparents and friends. So we pack with us a flexible idea of home, making it all the easier to embrace a mobile mentality.

Our kids have also packed with them patience that I hope leaks over to me. They're so great about waiting in lines, at bus stops, and airport gates—I wish I had as much capacity as them to go with the flow and embrace a "whatever" sort of attitude about schedule. They teach me! And they remind me daily how resilient kids actually are.

[caption id="attachment_10192" align="aligncenter" width="300"]A map of the world: the last item remaining in the Oxenreiders' home, which they have sold prior to their round-the-world trip. A map of the world: the last item remaining in the Oxenreiders' home, which they have sold prior to their round-the-world trip.[/caption]

TBC: There’s a thread of religious or theological discourse that runs through your posts on The Art of Simple, and you’ve mentioned that your life follows “a liturgical pattern.” Can you explain this in greater detail, and how being conscious of this works out in practice?

TO: From the beginning of my blog's existence, one of my favorite compliments is, "Well I'm not a Christian, but I love your blog because I still feel like I can be myself." The Art of Simple honestly has one of the most gracious, thoughtful community of readers I've ever seen online, and I love them so—they give me the freedom to be myself, which includes some of my thoughts on liturgy and the blurred lines between secular and sacred. I think of our year-long trip as a bit of a spiritual pilgrimage, but if I'm honest, I'm pretty sure that's what all of life is about. I believe in God, and I don't believe in a distinction between holy and ordinary, which gives me great hope that my daily life matters for good. My laundry folding matters. How I parent my kids matter. How we interact with the world around us matters. And to acknowledge the daily liturgy, the rhythm, of our lives, gives nod to a Creator that spins the globe on an axis of rhythm—seasons, days, patterns in life. Imbibing that truth helps us live simpler, because we're moving with the natural flow of life, instead of trying to fight it.

TBC: What are your favorite noun, verb, and adjective? How do they relate to one another, and why are they important to you?

TO: Noun: bailiwick. Verb: caterwaul. Adjective: ubiquitous. The most obvious way they relate is that they all sound really great rolling off the tongue, and they're also unusual but not high-brow. They also describe my kids well: they each have a particular bailiwick (Star Wars, Pokemon, and the like), they've been known to caterwaul from time to time, and they're most certainly ubiquitous—there's three of them, after all. And though you didn't ask, my favorite word to use while stubbing my toe? Mutfak (pronounced 'moot-fauk'). It's Turkish for 'kitchen,' but it makes a great and family-friendly expletive.


Tsh Oxenreider writes about simple living and being at home in the world at The Art of Simple and The Art of Simple Travel.  Follow her on Twitter.

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