A few years ago, my good friend Jessica gave me some photocopied materials from a course she had attended on Voluntary Simplicity. The idea behind the class (and the movement it stemmed from) is to choose a simple life in the midst of a culture that is anything but. The benefits of such a lifestyle are far reaching and span from a more positive environmental impact to personal contentment. As I read through the packets, I felt myself connecting with what I found there and started talking through some of the ideas with Kyle (it was not a hard sell): Limit your choices. Choose quality over quantity. Buy only what you need. Share your excess. Concentrate on simple pleasures.
And then Collin came along.
We had thought it was hard to live a simple life in a consumer-driven culture in which shopping is used as both therapy and entertainment, but we had no idea what we were in for. Children bring a new dynamic to the material possessions issue, and Collin added to that a whole slew of heart-wrenching, overwhelming special needs that operated in a vicious cycle that prevented him from getting ahead in any area: You motivate kids who have motor problems by using visual incentives - but what if they can't see? You help kids with visual impairment adapt to their world by teaching them to explore it physically - but what if they're physically incapable of doing so? So if ever there is a possible solution to break through this frustrating, hope-squashing circle - especially a possible solution you could go out and buy!!!!! - who wouldn't leap at the chance? We sure did.
Therapists brought toys and tools and equipment. I trawled the internet for products that might solve any of our many practical day-to-day issues. Some worked. A lot didn't. But a whole string of flops could never kill the buzz I would get when I found something that might make a difference to Collin and clicked the button that would send it across the country to my door.
If I'm honest, what I was really buying was not another light-up toy or fancy spoon - it was the feeling that I was doing something that might, just might, 'fix' what was wrong. It seems silly when you read it in black and white, but it's a powerful thing when you're grasping for any kind of hope you can find.
So, when we moved our entire upstairs downstairs to embark on the dreaded Home Renovation of 2011, it should not have been a surprise to us that our house was overrun with unused products of all kinds. And as I started to sort through things, I found myself revisiting the ideas from Voluntary Simplicity and wondering, Is this even possible for us?
I think the answer, like most things for our family, is, Yes, but it will look different than it might for others.
Now, I have to say: if we hadn't taken risks, we would never have gotten the iPad, which has changed SO MANY things for Collin in terms of fine motor and cause-and-effect comprehension. We would never have gotten the HuggaBebe, which enabled Collin to swing at the park or ride in the shopping cart.
BUT. We're far enough along in our journey now that we can see trends and ask ourselves thoughtful questions before we buy any old thing that may or may not spark some kind of connection for Collin: Does Collin really need this item, even though it is 'adapted'? Has he tried other things like this in the past? If so, how did it go? Is it worth another try? If so, do we still have the original to try with? If not, do we have something similar that we can try first to gauge the response? And we do the same thing with items we already have: When was the last time Collin used this? What was his response? Does he respond now? Is it worth putting away and trying again later? Can any of these items be used for multiple purposes?
Or here's a tough one: Am I hanging onto this for personal reasons? That's a biggie for me. When all of your dreams change, some are harder to let go of than others. There is an amazing Radio Flyer tricycle in the basement that I can pretty much guarantee Collin will not be able to ride on his own. But I am going to put that boy on that tricycle somehow and push him and take a picture of him smiling on it and then pass it on to someone else. Not because Collin couldn't do it, but because he will be done with it.
The result of all of this thinking and asking is that we have a less cluttered, more thoughtful home now that contains only the things we actually use (although it is, of course, an ongoing process). That means fewer items to keep up with and maintain, less tidying to do, and consequently more time and money available for us to share with others. And Collin is definitely not bored or deprived. That old wisdom about kids preferring to play with the box the toy came in rather than the toy itself is even true for kids with lots of special needs. The point of the saying is that kids appreciate the simple pleasures. Collin's favorite toy is an aluminum pan full of dry beans. He loves to swing. He gets out-of-control-excited by flipping the lights off and on or hanging upside down. It doesn't get much simpler than that.
Here's a video of bean joy. He is standing in a very expensive piece of equipment, but we asked all of our questions before ordering it and it passed the test.