I must admit I came to minimalism through tragedy.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, my mother was diagnosed with early onset dementia of the Alzheimer’s type. Part of dealing with her diagnosis has been dealing with her stuff: her house, her physical personal belongings, her finances.
I discovered that my mom, retired Army veteran, lover of all media, homeowner and divorcee had an overwhelming amount of stuff! Honestly, if she wasn’t so neat and tidy, I would call her a borderline hoarder.
And I, her only child, had to dive in, when she couldn’t.
The experience of going through her house — our house — and trying to decide what to do with it all broke me down. I cried. Sobbed in fact. I was overwhelmed with the amount of stuff, but also by the memories.
At some point in the process I realized my mama wasn’t ever going to live in her house again. She had no need of all of the things she had accumulated over her now 58 years of life. Me, her only daughter? I haven’t lived in the same city longer than four years. Ever. I’m a nomad, at home every where and no where. Where would I put all this stuff if I kept if for nostalgia’s sake? I don’t have a house and the way this journalism thing is set up, I might never have one.
I’m still dealing with what to do with my mama’s stuff. It’s come a long way since that very first time I went through it, but the process continues. Dealing with her stuff forced me to have a come to Jesus meeting with myself about my own stuff. I had questions.
- Why did I continue to drag things from my imagined life of living in a permanent space into my actual life of living in temporary spaces?
- Did I place more value on “owning” a thing, rather than on its function in my life?
- What would happen to my self-worth, self-esteem if I gave a lot of it away?
These are questions that I am still trying to answer.
In the beginning
When I got my first full-time gig at The Tuscaloosa News, I was stoked. And I wanted a grown up apartment to go with my new job. I did no math. Rent in Tuscaloosa and Alabama can be cheap. I would not discover until two years later how cheap it could be. All I knew was that I could get a whole townhouse for less than $500 a month. But a whole house needs furniture, right? And decorations, and, and, and…..
Yeah. That was a thing. Until I realized how much money I did — or rather, didn’t — make. I had to move to a less expensive apartment across town and try to get my mid-20 something head around the dismal state of my finances. I moved from Tuscaloosa, Ala. to Sarasota, Fla. in 2005, for a job that paid more, but I couldn’t afford to take my stuff, which I’ moved to Georgia. The re-location money wouldn’t cover getting all that stuff to Florida and I was broke. I also didn’t have a place to put it. This was Florida, pre-housing bubble bursting. Apartments were being converted to condos and rents were outrageous compared to Tuscaloosa.
Instead, I shared space with great roommates until I moved to Anniston, Ala. for graduate school a year later. I was moving toward minimalism mostly by circumstance, and a little by choice. I lived for three years without most of my stuff. I told my mama to keep what she wanted for her daycare and sell/giveaway the rest. I was on the road to Montgomery, Ala. vowing to never, ever accumulate that much stuff again.
A broken vow
While I never accumulated a house full of furniture again — Reese can attest to this — I still managed to amass a closet full of clothes, kitchen supplies and books. Oh, and there were the huge pieces of art that I had been dragging around since my summer internship in Zambia, circa 2001! And did I mention the heavy, vintage typewriter? Yeah. That was a thing. My house was mostly a statement in minimalism, but it also didn’t feel like home. It felt empty. Disconnected. I knew I wanted less stuff, but I didn’t have the language to talk about it when everything about growing up seemed to be about getting more stuff.
Two steps forward, two steps back
I got to test these questions again when I moved to the DMV. I left Montgomery, Ala. with only what I could fit into a two-door, 1997 Saturn SC2. Clothes, kitchen supplies, books. I was jammed in that car like toes in too small shoes. And still I ended up leaving a lot of things behind at a good friend’s house.
Though I had successfully managed to give away a ton of stuff, I still couldn’t bear to part with anything more. I mean, for goodness sake, I got my book collection down to four small banker’s boxes. Who does that? I vowed to purchase a Kindle and to never physically turn a page again.
And then I met Reese. This girl loves books. When she became my roommate, she came with books. Her books reminded me how much I enjoyed reading. How much I enjoyed turning a physical page and devouring a book in a 24-hour period. Her books reminded me how good it feels to walk into a book store, especially in Washington, D.C.
Our nation’s capital is home to Sankofa Video, Books and Cafe, The Children of the Sun, Busboys and Poets and Kramerbooks & Afterword Cafe. Not to mention thrift stores where you can find out of print books dirt cheap. (True story: I purged my suitcase while in Memphis because I bought books at a thrift store. Reese still had to bring some of them when she last came to visit.)
Ahh, glorious books. Truth be told, if it wasn’t for Operation Do Better, we would have spent every dime we made on books. The public library near our house, saved our pocket books to be sure.
But then it was time to move. And we both realized that in creating a home together, we had managed to amass a lot of stuff. That troubled the minimalist spirit that had developed in my heart from all my previous moves. Orchestrating a move is not my most favorite thing in the world, even though I have moved a lot in my 35 years. (Hello, Army brat.). I felt it whenever we visited friends, who had these spry, carefully edited apartments. Nothing more, nothing less. We had created an amazing space, but it was starting to feel like too much. Moving helped us both realize just how much it was.
Throw it out
When a friend posted a great article that encouraged us to throw everything away, ish got real. We jumped on a challenge to intentionally get rid of three or four things every day for 30 days. Because I was in transition, I had to modify the challenge. But I’m happy to say that by the time I unpacked my last box at my new space in New Haven, I managed to purge about 200 items over the last month.
While my stuff is still a little bit more than is necessary, it’s not much more, and that feels right. I learned while living with Reese what it means to create a space with intention, and I believe I have achieved minimalism without sacrificing comfort in my new place. I have some thoughts about how to ensure that I continue to travel light and ready for new adventure that I will share in another post.
So, I’ll leave you with these additional question to ponder: If you had an opportunity to pick up your life and move it to another country, state, city would your stuff hold you back? Would you chuck it all for the experience of a lifetime?
Do you consume, therefore you are? Share your thoughts on minimalism in the comments below.