A: In 1988 I cut out a small article about summer wardrobe essentials from The New York Times Magazine, written by the renowned fashion editor Carrie Donovan. In the piece, Ms.Donovan outlined a list of basics for a well-edited wardrobe. I held on to that article for many years because the information it offered was timeless. A while back, while cleaning out a file cabinet, I found it and wondered, “why couldn’t the concept of essentials be applied to other areas of life?” So that’s how the idea of the book came about.
Q: Did you ever suffer from a cluttered life? Can you describe it?
A: Actually, I’ve always been a fairly organized person. Having lived in small New York apartments for most of my adult life, I’ve learned to pare down out of necessity. The upside of living in a small space is that it gives you definite boundaries. Still, I have to control my urge to add to my existing “stuff”—for example, I have a weakness for flea markets: I collect china teapots, among other things, so it’s a constant battle to keep a reasonable balance. Another challenge for me is paper clutter–mail, catalogs, magazines, newspapers. I really have to be vigilant. What I’ve found over the years is that, if I haven’t read something within a certain time period, I let it go. Truth is, once it’s gone, I never miss it.
Q: Did writing this book prompt you to simplify your own life? If so, how?
A: Yes, especially after interviewing Peter Walsh, the organizational expert on TLC’s Clean Sweep. I immediately wanted to throw out everything and start from scratch. Peter said you have to look at your stuff and ask yourself this question: “What is the vision for the life I want?” Once you decide what your vision is, then ask yourself, “Does this item help me achieve that vision?” If it does, keep it; if it doesn’t, then let it go. It’s as simple as that. So I find myself using that as a guide—not only when cleaning closets but also when buying things.
Q: Were there any items that you had trouble letting go of? Any emotional blocks that surprised you?
A: Yes. Like most people, I have trouble letting go of certain items from the past. While I find it easier to throw out magazines, clothing, shoes, or kitchen stuff, I find it painful to let go of things like books or old records. I confess that I still have some of my college textbooks and lots of old 45 records and vinyl albums that I can’t seem to part with. Needless to say, that’s a work in progress.
Q: What is your favorite piece of unexpected advice from this book?
A: I don’t know if it’s unexpected advice, but the overall message is just this: keep it simple. If you stick to the tried-and-true basics, you don’t really need a lot to live a good life.
Q: In addition to material necessities such as food and shelter, you also maintain that things like love and social connection are important for a balanced life. Can you talk a little about the mental and spiritual needs you cover in this book?
A: Readers will find that some of the mind and spirit essentials overlap. For instance, we are social creatures and need to be in relationship with others, so love and social connection are critical ingredients for mental and spiritual health. We not only need companionship and intimacy but also a sense of fellowship and oneness with others. Studies suggest that when people feel isolated, they may have lowered immunity or be at higher risk for depression and addictive behaviors. We also need quiet, reflective time: practices like meditation can be both a mental and spiritual exercise. Some neuroscientists say meditation can actually bring about physical changes in your brain (it not only relaxes you but it can also make you happier); meditation (as well as prayer or contemplation) can also deepen your connection to spirit.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to discuss?
In the area of mind health, one of the things I found particularly fascinating was that we need to feel a sense of control, experts say. This has nothing to do with controlling others or outside circumstances. It is all about our personal coping skills—how we think, how we handle adversity, how we react to stress, how we adapt to change. It is about having inner control, which is real power, and it is one of the keys to health and happiness.