In this post Will Robertson speaks about the Simplicity themes that are woven into his latest children’s book, “Boxes.” And what’s more, we are giving away a framed original, signed charcoal illustration of the boy and his box and a copy of the book! Read on to find out how to win!
Will had a lot of great stuff to say, but I had to shorten the interview significantly – blog readers tend to read and engage with only short posts! If you feel like you missed something, you can read his entire interview below. But to participate in the giveaway, please click back to the blog post.
1) “Boxes” reminded me of a summer where I spent many nights sleeping in a cardboard box with my friend who lived next door. Did you play with a cardboard box as a child? Do you still?
Boxes are a part of everyone’s childhood. My own kids have had a few epic boxes themselves. Whenever I find a good box, it gets played with. If it’s a smaller box, it’s fun to use as a sled on our hardwood floor, and I’ll push the kids around in it. Large boxes have been turned into playhouses and the kids have worn them out. There’s something about a box that sparks imagination, the way nothing else can. It seems like a crime to just stuff thing into them and stick them in storage.
2) How do you hope children will respond to “Boxes?” How did your children respond? Do you think simplicity is something that can be taught?
When I set about telling the story of Boxes, I wanted to communicate my values in a way that wasn’t preachy, but really connected with the reader. I hope I’ve achieved that.
My own kids are biased. They loved it. They’ve got a bunch of friends though who have been fans of my comic strip Casey and Kyle and I was nervous to get the book to them because I was concerned that they’d disregard it as just a picture book, not a comic book. When they read it and one of them did a book report for his mom, he said that this was the best book I had ever written. That’s when I knew that I had succeeded in connecting with them.
I do think simplicity is something that can be taught, but I think, like with most things, that it has to be consistently applied throughout the whole family. I’ve had friends where the dad would try to downsize, but the mom never had to downsize her things. It’s easy to be that way… to take pressure off of someone in the family, but I think that it makes living simply seem like a punishment or a burden to everyone else. In our own family, we took the approach that as the kids were downsizing, we were going to be there with them, reducing our own possessions.
At each stage along the way, we’ve made our kids part of the process. They don’t have a voice in the decision making, but I think it’s key to keep our goals and our values front-and-center so that they know they really are going to impact our family. When they have friends who have different values and so have different things, we remind them of why we are making the choices we’re making.
3) What is your approach to simplicity?
For me, the draw to simplicity is not about having a certain number of possessions. Some of the minimalists are into that… having 100 items, etc… and that’s fabulous, but for me, the idea is more of making sure that a possession is adding value. And this goes, not just for possessions, but for time use, work, etc…
When we started in our kids’ room, we emphasized the idea that we were not just removing things that were getting in the way, but that we were adding in good things. We started involving our kids in the cooking process. We started going on longer walks with them. We found that if you stopped and focused on a bush, after a few minutes, the bush suddenly became alive with insect activity that you missed until you’d allowed your brain to really relax and see the minutia. We started playing games with them at a coffee shop.
So for us, it wasn’t just about not having things, it was about deciding what kind of life we wanted to live, and then working together to try to bring that life to reality.
There are times when I look around for something and wish I still had it. There are times when I wish I could just throw my computer away and never log on to anything again. There’s a balance there. Some things are necessary. Maybe in the future they won’t be. Then they’ll be removed.
Sometimes when you don’t have something you thought you needed, you have to figure out another way to accomplish your goal and you end up realizing there was a better way all along that you hadn’t ever had to find.
So, I think there’s an adventure in simplicity.
4) Todays discourse on Simplicity focuses heavily on downsizing and reduction of things. I find this to be a very limiting definition. As the boy filled up his box with toys and things, I couldn’t help but think that there must be a deeper metaphor. Maybe the things represented relationships, activities, or habits that are more detrimental than enriching. In addition to reducing our unnecessary belongings, how do you think we can apply the boy’s lesson to our lives?
This is a great question. I think it’s easy to look at possessions as the problem, when really, it’s the symptom. If I have a runny nose, I don’t cut off my nose to make my cold go away. The runny nose is a symptom of a larger issue. When I’ve fixed the larger issue, the runny nose will go away and I’ll feel much better. Possessions are part of the discussion, for sure, because it’s an obvious symptom, but it’s a symptom of a lack of contentment, that causes us to buy and buy.
I think if you are looking for happiness simply by owning less, it won’t bring you joy. You can’t just take out the bad, you need to make sure you’re aiming for something great as well. In the end, the boy isn’t just happy because he only owns a box, he’s happy because the box is allowing him to be part of a great adventure. It is enabling him, not just being a smaller barrier.
Our society has a melancholy disposition and I think that’s why there’s so much push for the next best thing. We’ve been trained to see ourselves as consumers and on a gut level, even though many of us in our culture have bought into it, on some level, there’s a nagging doubt. And the culture wants to bury that doubt. Entertainment has become so “necessary” and pervasive that no one is really having any solitude or reflection. I love music, but you can’t get away from it. It’s instinctive and if you don’t consciously make the decision to have contemplative time, you can’t get your bearings.
I think part of why we’re (speaking of the larger culture) so concerned with getting older is that we’re not finding the fulfillment we want in life and we feel like time is running out and we don’t have much to show for it. And our larger culture defines success in life by the accumulation of the nicest things or the best relationships or the nicest vacations.
People have an inherent need to feel like they’ve accomplished something with their life; that they’ve had a purpose, and a truly successful life is found in achieving our unique mission in life. I think that in all of the business, habits, and the general manic style of living, it’s very easy to get “off course”. When we take a minute to pause, it seems like we haven’t really tackled what we were meant for.
Part of living simply is allowing time for reflection. I heard a great quote and I don’t remember the exact wording, but it was something like: Don’t sacrifice what’s great for what’s good.
I think that’s key, because there are a lot of good things in life, but only a few great things, and when we’re buried by the good, we don’t have mental or physical room to handle the great. So, it’s key to stop and pay attention to what we’re doing, why, and to decide if we’re moving forward in the best way.
For the boy, his contentment was in playing with his box. And his box had unlimited potential. As he accumulated possessions, each one functioned in a certain way. None of them fed his creativity. None of them changed him in any way. They were good. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them. But they weren’t great. They didn’t affect him on a deeper level.
The key to downsizing is to get back to where we should have been all along. If you end up making a wrong turn when you’re driving, sometimes the best way to “find yourself” is to go back to where you knew where you were. That’s what he does. As he removes the barriers, he finds himself back where he was content.
The way this plays out may look different for each person, but I think the principle of resetting yourself is key to the idea of simplicity and contentment.
I hope that answers the question…
5) In the end, the boy sails away in his box searching for a land where everyone is happy, but finds happiness instead in the adventure. I think a lot of people start cruising searching for the same thing. I recently set sail on a voyage searching for an iceberg only to rediscover that it’s often the quest that brings happiness, not the destination. What in your life inspired you to write a story with such a simple, yet powerful sentiment?
When I was younger I got to travel a lot. I played the trumpet and by the time I was 21, I’d been in 14 countries. It was awesome. And I had this expectation that my life was going to go in a direction where I’d be free to travel and experience the world.
I got married, got a job (not necessarily in that order), we had some kids, and it seemed like our big goals were never realized. We were getting by, but that was it. Both my wife and I felt like we were being stuck, both by our financial situation and the expectations of others.
And as we started to make more money, we could get more of the things we wanted, but it seemed like the more we got, the more we couldn’t quite afford yet. One day, we were replacing a spatula for the third time, and I stopped and asked my wife something along the lines of, “Do you think we’ll ever have enough? Will there ever be a day when we can stop buying things?”
When we looked back at our total earnings, we’d made enough that it seemed like we should have been able to buy everything we’d ever need and then begin to do other things with our life besides just earn and spend, but here we were in the middle of Walmart for the fifth time that week and the feeling that it would never end was overwhelming.
And so we talked about it and we took a look at our lives and our home and the things that were giving us discontent (like the constant clutter and our kids’ room that overflowed with toys) and we decided to map out the life we wanted to live.
That propelled us into a life of pursued simplicity. And as it became a larger part of our lives, it began to affect how I saw the world around me. You mentioned there being a joy in the journey and even though we have more freedom now to do the things we wanted, the change in who we are as people has been more of a blessing than trips we can take or activities we can do.
As far as the writing of the book, I’m a visual guy first. One day, my grandmother mentioned seeing a boy pushing a box and he couldn’t see over the top, and that image stuck with me. A little boy who already has so much stuff it overwhelms him. I did a sketch, and continued to work the idea over and over in my mind until it took shape. I asked myself, what does it take to get us to stop pushing our box and do something different, and for this story, it took a little girl and the promise of a better life someplace over the water. A promise worth changing everything for.
6) I looked at your website and read the book cover to cover. I just have one more burning question. Is your house yellow or blueish-gray?
Ha. It was yellow when I delivered the book. Now, we’ve moved and our house is blue-ish gray.