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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

(Suburban) Mission Impossible: Live with Less

By city standards, our house is spacious: four bedrooms, a small basement playroom for the children, and additional storage in the basement. We have a driveway and a garage, and the backyard is three times the size of an average city postage-stamp size lot. It’s a center hall colonial, likely built in the 1920’s, and it’s solid and clean. We like to say that we were prayed into this house by the staff at our church who, when we’d come looking for rental houses in Toronto a year and a half ago, had taken us by the shoulders and prayed for God to work miracles of grace and provide the right house. That night, our realtor had called to say another house had just come up for lease. Were we interested in seeing it? By comfortable suburban standards, our house lacks many of the amenities considered normal. No icemaker. No central air conditioning. No walk-in closets. The seven of us share one bathroom, and the kitchen boasts not more than thirty inches of workspace and ten cabinets. (And not a single lazy susan.)

We’ve done what feels like the suburban impossible: taken our super-sized family and moved somewhere smaller.

Here’s where I’m supposed to tell you how spiritual it has all been, how we’ve shed my attachment to material luxuries and conveniences, how we’re now ready to move to Mumbai. Closer to the truth is the subtle lure I feel back to the suburbs, where life is comfortable and convenient.

I don’t think I knew how deeply I’d drunk of the fountain of comfort and convenience until we moved into the city. (And again, let me admit that by city standards, we are living very comfortably and conveniently.) But on the day I must drive my feverish child to the doctor’s office (where there is neither a parking lot nor street parking), and I have to park across a busy street which I’ll then need to cross on foot with two four-year-olds in tow (inevitably, we’re walking in blinding rain), I curse the city and think about the suburban doctor’s office we used to visit and park FOR FREE. When I want a quick cup of Starbucks, there is no convenient drive-thru on the way to school. When I need to return books to the library, I find all seven of the library parking spaces are taken. When I need to pick up a prescription, there is no 24-hour drive-thru CVS, where I could hand the script to someone from the window of my mini-van and circle back in fifteen minutes. I must park (and pay to park) and go inside and wait.

And the house we’ve rented and squeezed ourselves into, the one renovated with its fresh coat of paint and new carpet? It would cost us almost two million bucks to buy this house. Which means that if we stay in Toronto, we’ve likely to have to move somewhere even smaller.

It’s no wonder people move out of the city. Why would they stay when it costs significantly more to have substantially less?

Assuming, of course, that having more is the goal to which we’re all meant to be striving.

Which takes me to the best lesson of all in city living.

We can live with less. Less space. Less comfort. Less convenience. And we can even do it happily. (Most days, at least.)

When our closets are smaller, when our kitchen has fewer cabinets, when our living space has shrunk, we will have to be strategic and choosy about the things we buy. And guess what? We will buy less and even begin wanting less. And the less we buy, the less we maintain. The less we maintain, the more time we have. The more time we have, oh who of us wouldn’t know what to do with some surplus hours?

And I can’t help but wonder: isn’t that the promise of real freedom?

(Which isn’t to say that tomorrow I might not be dreaming of what it would be like to have a guest bedroom and a kitchen with an island and an office with a door.)

“We really must understand that the lust for affluence in contemporary society is psychotic. It is psychotic because it has completely lost touch with reality. We crave things we neither need nor enjoy. 'We buy things we do not want to impress people we do not like.' ...It is time to awaken to the fact that conformity to a sick society is to be sick.” Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline