I spent my first five years as a parent living out of a suitcase on a beach. In those five years, we moved many times: when the rent was raised, when a typhoon knocked the power lines, and when my husband changed employers with different housing plans.
We literally lived out of a suitcase, one for each family member: one for me, one for my husband Francis, and one for our daughter Dione who moved with us to the beach when she turned one. We lived near the beach till she was five years old and we decided to pack up and return to our home city for good.
Even with a young child, it was easy to live the minimalist life when you were always on the move and didn’t need more than a few pairs of shorts, shirts, slippers, and swimsuits. The beach environment also encouraged it: there was no need to accumulate stuff in a house you barely stayed in because the outdoors were so much fun. After sundown, the beach was even livelier with nightlife. Our daughter Dione spent her early childhood years swimming and roaming the vast beach, day and night, with other beach children. For toys, she only consistently played with two dolls and Jenga blocks for building doll furniture along with tin cans, milk cartons, and other things she could reach in the pantry.
Whenever we flew back to the city to occasionally visit our parents, they would marvel at how unastonished Dione was when shown around shiny shelves in a toy store. I’ll only buy one, she would say, no matter how often my parents told her how they missed her and how willing they were to buy her as many toys as she wanted.
Dione grew up not needing or wanting a lot of toys because there was no mall on the beach. She didn’t need a lot of clothes or even shoes because she walked barefoot on the sand, and barely wore anything over swimwear. Same with me: I wore no make-up, wore bikinis for underwear, and only pulled a shirt over my head when I sat in the beach bar or restaurant where my husband worked as the chef, writing books and papers as Dione played nearby. It was a truly simple life that stripped me of habits I developed growing up in the city: shopping to destress, consuming to feel good, purchasing things to make up for the alienation of work from life.
At home — or wherever we were staying at the moment — I prepared simple meals because unlike my husband, I sucked at cooking. For better or for worse, my daughter became a very picky eater because she was used to a very limited repertoire of whatever passed as my cooking: eggs, rice, bread, cheese, milk. Chicken that I could just fry. Pasta I could just toss in oil, tomatoes, and cheese. Cut fruits for dessert. My husband would come home exhausted from kitchen work and would just whip a big batch of something for me to take out of the fridge every now and then to reheat when egg-rice-bread-cheese-chicken got boring.
We didn’t have a lot of things, so there was hardly any mess to make. The house (usually a one-room affair) was small and easy to clean, and Dione grew up being made to pack her toys back into her suitcase whenever she was done playing because I couldn’t stand a disorderly place. I couldn’t begin writing until the bed was made, the sink emptied, the clean laundry and kitchen rags folded. I didn’t need to force myself to tolerate messes.
When we returned to the city, which for me meant returning to power dressing at work, or keeping up with the Joneses so my daughter wouldn’t feel left out for not knowing about or having the latest plaything that every kid was crazy about, I appreciated that the minimalist habits we formed as a family had completely taken hold of us that we could no longer totally return to our former city selves. When I returned to full-time teaching at the university, I found myself wearing the same pair of shoes every day, and interchanging a few pairs of pants and shirts; I didn’t intend to form a capsule wardrobe but that was what I ended up having. I totally lost interest in collecting bags, jewelry, and lipstick shades.
It’s been four years since we left the beach and all my belongings still fit in one suitcase.
When we returned to our city home, I found myself purging my main indulgence: books. In every academic’s home is a bookcase which we liked looking at as a sign of accumulated learning. I purged mine, gave away or sold many books, and retained only a few I truly needed and loved. In my mind, I no longer needed the weight of books as an anchor for my professional self-confidence. I still bought and read books, or better yet, I’d download their e-book versions.
My husband, too, who used to collect kitchen gadgets and fill the shelves with a collection of dried herbs and spices, realized that aside from a nice set of very sharp knives he could carry around in a knife bag plus the skill to use them, he didn’t need a showcase kitchen like I didn’t need a display bookcase to be confident in our talent and worth.
Our daughter, who had only known the minimalist life, had to be guided through city culture shock. She missed walking barefoot on warm, fuzzy sand that she attempted many times to kick her slippers off, only to find cemented grounds blisteringly hot, or indoor floors too cold. She quickly made friends in kindergarten and got into their world of following YouTube child influencers, spending Robux in Roblox, and sipping water from expensive double-wall water canteens. At five years old, she picked up that her friends were wearing certain brands (and shoes). She felt odd that she lived on the beach for years while her friends vacationed in them.
Living in a pared-down house, severing ourselves from attachment to things, and learning to live in lightness turned out to be the easy part. For Francis and I, there was no struggle in sustaining a lifestyle that felt natural to us regardless of where we lived, beach or city. The harder part turned out to be guiding our minimalist child in a world where she starkly stood out. She was the sunburnt girl who hated putting her hair up in neat ponytails, who obsessed about shoes because her classmates wore them, though she couldn’t stand any covering on her feet. She painted grass, sky, and waters in art class, while her classmates painted a random assortment of trains and trucks, Hello Kitties and Ironmen, fantastic patterns, and wild, dreamlike juxtapositions.
When her school organized a family camp in the mountains, we were of course one of the first to excitedly sign up. Her kindergarten teacher, once she found her chance, sat next to Francis and me while the kids played under the trees. “Your daughter is lucky to have lived this way, close to nature. For the others, we have to organize camp like this every year so they’ll experience it, unless their parents take them out for hikes and not just city tours abroad. Did you know that your daughter’s paintings really stood out in art class?”
That was how we found out about Dione’s paintings, which she would bring home but we dismissed as probably more her art teacher’s work than hers because they looked too realistic, unlike Dione’s stick drawings at home. In fact, Francis and I once humored ourselves by getting Dione to paint on a canvas at home. “Paint us something like what you do at school,” we told her, and felt verified when she produced a stick figure of a flower set against a sky-blue background.
We frankly told the teacher, “Oh, those paintings? We thought her art teacher must be guiding her too much, they were no longer truly Dione’s own work. They don’t look like the paintings she does at home.”
That was when it became her teacher’s turn to give us an education, a professional insight into Dione’s minimalist mind. “Over the course of several weeks, Dione consistently chose the same natural subjects for ten different paintings. Sure they varied, but they were of the same kind: the sea in the daytime, mountains at night. Land, water, the sky at various times of the day, like during sunset or where there’s a moon. She once said she saw a documentary about Japan on Netflix, so she chose to paint a cherry blossom tree though she hasn’t seen one in real life. Her classmates’ choices, in comparison, were very random. Sure there will be a waterfall or a beach, but those students will also paint dragons and robots in those same scenes.
“The art teacher, Mr. Santos, begins class by sitting with each student and guiding them into penciling what’s on their minds. Then he teaches the color blending and the brushwork according to the child’s vision of the image, not according to what the child can do. Mr. Santos is a genius at letting the children mirror on canvas the way they see their world without the limits of their art skills. When Dione painted the flower at home without Mr. Santos’s help, you saw a flower drawn with Dione’s kiddie drawing skills. But you didn’t see how she chose a singular flower planted on real ground, set against a clear blue sky. There is focus, an organization. There is nothing excessive, everything is in its proper place in a beautifully balanced universe that needs no embellishment.”
We realized that day, not just the extent of how those years of living close to nature shaped Dione’s inner world, but that we can be like Mr. Santos in raising a minimalist daughter in her current external world filled with noise, clutter, and disjointedness. Just like how Francis and I found ourselves purging our kitchen and bookshelves to externalize our inner sense of weightless worth, we can guide Dione into seeing more clearly, and expressing more deliberately her own inner world.
We owe it to chance that Francis and I got to live our first few years as parents on the beach, away from city culture that we now look at with critical eyes. We didn’t move to the beach to intentionally learn how to live minimally. We didn’t know what we were missing till we lived away from the excesses, the pretensions, and the rigidity of city living.
We loved our lives on the beach so much that in an ideal world, we’ll live there forever. But “life happened” to us, perchance perhaps, like how Francis and I were surprised by a chance to work within a beautiful, faraway beach. Life gave us a chance for change, and then took it back — but we were never the same again.
Surviving parenthood as a minimalist goes beyond tolerating or obliterating messes, reducing consumption and waste, and choosing natural destinations for travel experiences. To be a minimalist is to maximize the essentials of life, wherever we happen to live.