“Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest.” –Leo Babauta
I feel like my twenties was spent accumulating Stuff, and my thirties is going to be spent getting rid of it. I’m a writer, and accumulate paper at an alarming rate. I get supplies and ephemera and things, and plan to do projects that end up being stuffed into boxes. Instead of making a list of books I wanted to read someday, for awhile (because I worked in a bookstore that gave me a 30% discount) I would just buy the book and put it in a crate, planning to get to it eventually. This system may work great if you’re not already a busy person with a tendency to procrastinate, but I am not that person. Besides that, my living space never expanded to accommodate all my Stuff like I thought it would. Turns out that not everyone’s economic situation is a steadily increasing upward climb after college. I think I figured that by the time I got to my 30s, my living space would have expanded and stabilized, but that’s just not how life worked out. And so now I wonder why I have all this Stuff, why I pack it up and haul it around to a new living space every two to three years, why I step over it in my bedroom, why I trip over it in the dark, why I breathe in the dust it collects. I’m finally looking at fitting my stuff into the space I have, instead of the other way around. (And yes, it is capitalized in my head, this Stuff that I probably don’t need and yet don’t get rid of.)
A milk crate full of scratch paper. An old microwave. Six bags of clothes and towels. A bashed-up futon. Four pairs of shoes.
After my dad had to clean out his mom’s house after she died, he came home and started emptying out his own crawl space and filing cabinets and closets, so that me and my brother won’t have to someday. Hurricane Katrina took care of the problem at my other grandmother’s house. When I was a kid, I used to lie awake at night fearing that my house would catch fire (the school unit that was meant to empower me in case of emergency had the effect of opening my eyes to a manner of death and destruction I hadn’t, to that point, realized was possible), and I would make lists in my head of what I needed to take out of the house with me. I keep reading about Syrian refugees, millions of them, leaving behind everything they can’t carry. People fleeing from wildfires. Zombie apocalypse stories that reduce humanity to its bones. The problem of electrifying India and China while not cooking the planet. Why do I carry all this stuff. The objects, the lists, the tasks, the anxiety. The stuff. It’s all ephemeral anyway. Just one fire away from being ash and memories. Just one hurricane away from being black sludge. How much of it do I really really need?
A DSLR camera. An electric guitar. A 12×1 amp. A saxophone. A 12-channel mixer. Old art supplies. Old blank books.
This isn’t entirely the way I was raised. My parents are tidy people, my dad especially is budget-minded, and they didn’t just buy stuff willy-nilly. But neither did they throw anything away that might be useful (or rather, in the case of my dad, he doesn’t buy anything that he doesn’t think he can get at least ten years of good use out of). They didn’t police my own ability to control my bedroom space and accumulate possessions. Even as a little kid, I liked garage sales. I grew up reading Ranger Rick and its elementary-level precautions against how fast we’re filling up all of our landfills. So for as long as I can remember, I have been both surrounded by stuff and worried about it. Full bookshelves, full garages, full crawl spaces, full drawers of random crap that don’t have a place. I used to keep a milk crate full of paper that was blank on one side that I used as scratch paper. I carted it around for over ten years; it turned into a sort of sediment record of my academic career going all the way back to high school. I finally chucked it out last summer. As a friend of mine said, if you haven’t used it in ten years, you’re not going to use it. So out it went. And now it’s one less thing, physically and mentally, to carry around.
I was raised in Quakerism, and one of Quakerism’s founding principles is Simplicity. The definition I was told as a child, that I’ve always connected to, is that Simplicity isn’t about the amount of stuff you have or don’t have. And it’s not even necessarily about how busy you are, something that those of us in the 21st century probably find comforting. The way Simplicity was explained to me is that you need to have space in your brain and your heart to be able to listen to God in your life. For me, it happens to be true that a cluttery living space contributes to a cluttery headspace and a cluttery religious practice. On the other hand, some of the most cluttered houses I was around growing up were houses owned by Quakers, because we tend to save everything in the hope that it might be useful someday. It took me a long time to realize that I can’t save stuff hoping I’ll use it someday. It takes up too much space in my head. When I imagine my best living space, or when I try to imagine my life feeling caught up and simple, I’m in something like a log cabin with no extraneous furniture and simple tasks to do and I just move through life, doing one thing at a time. I keep daydreaming about putting my stuff in storage and going and teaching English in Japan, or even just getting a long haul trucker’s license and living in the cab of a truck with a dog and a small bookshelf with books and a laptop. (My need to collect books will probably forever stand in the way of my desire to live in a tiny cabin with no extraneous possessions.)
How much of my life is just extraneous? What could I do without? The vast majority of it. Easily. The question is, will I do without it because I want to, or will I wait until I have to, until the entropy of the universe takes my decision to own stuff out of my hands?
Paystubs from 2005. Old pots and pans from Wal-Mart. Three boxes of books. Two boxes of old magazines. Old candles.
Why do I save objects thinking I’ll use them someday? Wouldn’t it be better if I sent it back out into the world where someone who might be able to use it now could maybe find it? As a country, we’re drowning in stuff. We could stop producing jeans and shirts and shoes right now any everyone would still be able to walk around fully clothed for years. 40% of the food purchased nationwide gets thrown away. The problem of people not having stuff isn’t a problem of resources; it’s a problem of distribution. As I get used to being able to find everything online, and at my local library, trying to build my own archive of useful Stuff seems like a futile endeavor. I don’t have the time or the space or the filing system.
And so, a little at a time, stuff has gone out the door. To Goodwill and onto Amazon and ebay and into Little Free Library boxes and used book stores. I still have a box of records (music records I mean) to sell on ebay. I could probably stand to get rid of more clothes. I can’t quite stand to get rid of my old Nintendo, even though I don’t have anything to plug it into. There’s another drawer of audio cables and chargers that I could chuck out. These days, ironically, my problem is cardboard boxes, which I don’t want to throw out because I could fill them with stuff I’m throwing out, but I’m not sure now if I have more cardboard boxes than stuff to put in them.
Piles of bumper stickers that I don’t have a car to put them on. My childhood dog’s collar. A box of Mardi Gras necklaces.
I’ve been reading books like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, listening to podcasts like The Minimalists, to get me in the right mindset to throw stuff out. I’m realizing that material simplicity–the sort of simplicity where you approach your possessions and schedule with mindfulness and intention instead of just automatically going wherever your impulses lead you–is one of those things that you approach entirely differently depending on your income level aand class privilege. What, for some folks, is a way to improve their life is for other people just life. I had an economic upbringing that was set to a packrat/accumulation default, and much of my adulthood has been spent unlearning that behavior (it says something about the creepy power of American culture that I learned this behavior in spite of my parents’ best efforts to teach me otherwise). If you don’t have money to buy that book you want to read, even at a 30% discount, you don’t buy the damn book. If you don’t have a closet or floor space in which to cram all your scrapbook supplies (that you had the money to buy), you don’t even start out with crafting supplies and half-done projects.
But even more than that, minimalism as a philosophy has a certain class-based bias. Maria Kondo, the tidying guru of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, recommends that throwing things out be the default setting, and that you only keep things that give you joy. Alright, okay. One of her anecdotes involves getting rid of a screwdriver, and then trying to use other household objects in the place of the screwdriver, before deciding that life really needs screwdrivers and buying another one. The idea of throwing away (or giving to Goodwill) a perfectly good screwdriver and not replacing it until I find a joy-causing screwdriver is bonkers to me. The fact that the Minimalists (bloggers Josh and Ryan) left extremely well-paying corporate careers to be bloggers, and to have that blog be about the joy of less stuff, is bonkers. Most of us can’t leave our jobs, no matter how much we want to. I just started listening to the Minimalists podcast, and on one level I love the idea and the content and the process, but on another level I really hope they acknowledge at some point that just the fact that they were able to make that choice at all is an extraordinary level of privilege and class and education in and of itself. I have maybe $200 left in my bank account at the end of every month; no way can I quit my job and be a blogger. They talk about their desire, early on their minimalism journey, to quit their jobs and be baristas. My reaction (because I was a barista for ten years) was, “Yeah, that’s not living simply, that’s just being poor.” What’s the difference between being poor and living simply? Even being a barista is a manifestation of privilege, because it means you’ve spent time in coffee shops, which means you have an extra $5 a day to spend on coffee and muffins. Nobody ever advocates quitting your corporate job for the joy of being a Wal-Mart greeter, even though the two probably pay roughly the same. The Minimalists said no to $10k a month by refusing to put ads on their site. I don’t know how much either of them has that they can say no to $10k a month, but holy shit, I would love $10k a month. Almost anyone would, and it’s not because we’re greedy or have no values, it’s because so many Americans feel fucking broke all the time.
But, y’know, maybe I could. Because that’s the thing, when I’m annoyed by shit like this, it’s often either because I recognize myself in this classist weirdness, or because I want to. I want a website that’s popular enough that someone will give me $10k per month for ads. I’d do that for six months, pay off all my debts, donate money to a scholarship fund for kids who don’t have money for college, and then go back to my ad-free model. I want to be the asshole that considers being a barista to be artful and working at Wal-Mart to be drudgery. I want to make choices about my life, not have those choices made for me either by economic limits or by cultural inertia. And one of the deepest inertias, one of the biggest lies told to us, is that we don’t have choices about things that we actually have a choice about.
I don’t know. I really don’t. I’ve been working on this entry for weeks, and while it’s gotten longer, I don’t think I’ve reached any more clarity on the whole thing. Maybe I should just stuck with throwing stuff out, and not thinking about the lifestyle implications.
2 thoughts on “Most Complicated”
I have been struggling with this very thing for years. I feel suffocated by the amount of junk I have but I am also unable to let enough of it go. I am not a TV-reality show style hoarder and when I try to talk about this to friends and family they are surprised because they do not see this side of me. I need things to be orderly and tidy but it is still possible to live like that with too much stuff. It is harder; harder to keep clean, harder to keep in order and more difficult to move home.
Some nights, just before falling asleep, I can feel the pressure of the rubbish I have stored in the attic above me. Sometimes I wish that there would be a fire a burn it all away and get the chance to stat again. Would I find myself in the same situation a few years down the line?
I have no idea how got this way. I am not materialistic in the normal sense – I don’t buy fancy things with designer labels or avidly collect things (books don’t count, right?). My books don’t bother me, I do regularly cull them and it they were the only area of material excess in my life I would be very happy. I think one of the things that keeps me stuck like this is that I have very different challenges to overcome depending on the type of clutter I am trying to clear. Nostalgic stuff is the hardest, even though my past isn’t a very happy one and I don’t like revisiting it. But I have a real problem with useful things or things that I might need in the future. Bret and Kate McKay have an excellent article on how much money you have reflects on the amount of minimalism you can afford to have “Wealth is not a number of dollars. It is not a number of material possessions. It’s having options and the ability to take on risk.” http://www.artofmanliness.com/2014/07/31/the-problem-with-minimalism/). I am a full-time student with a part-time job, I can’t afford risk.
Thanks for the interesting post. I wish I have something more productive to add, rather than just ‘Me too!’.
Thanks for the comment! I have found that rather than Marie Kondo’s “spark joy” philosophy, I find it easier to get rid of stuff if I imagine how I would feel if I lost it in a fire. I can get rid of SO MUCH in that mind set. But just today I found a pile of clothes that I apparently shoved into a suitcase to get them out of the way. Clothes I had forgotten I even owned. It feels never ending, but it also feels good to be making any kind of progress.
I love the idea of wealth meaning having options rather than having money. I am really wealthy by that metric, not least because I have really great friends and family who help me with choices and options. But yeah, I’ve done the part time job/full time student thing (and sometimes full time job/full time student) and it’s hard to carve out the time to go through your stuff, or do any long-term planning really. I didn’t get started on the whole process until I was out of school and suddenly had an extra 30 hours a week to get caught up on everything else in my life.