Minimalism and How It’s Shaping My Life
One person’s minimalism might be another’s frugal living, another’s owning of 100 things, and yet another’s decluttering project. Some people consider it simply a practical matter for traveling light and others consider it a matter of principle, to leave a lighter footprint on the world. Then there is minimalism and the spiritual, where eschewing material excess promotes connection with God or a higher Self or Being. There is also minimalism as an aesthetic, such as minimalist design, where the walls are white and and clutter is a sin.
Hey, I don’t know about you, but I’ve got all of the above going on to one extent or another, in aspiration if not yet in practice. In my case, it wasn’t intentional–I didn’t wake up one day and say, I’m going to be a minimalist. It was a natural progression from one thing to another, as the benefits of every step toward some element of minimalism had a ripple effect. This seems to be a very common experience, and one whose time seems to have come for the world at large, not just for a few of us.
Some say that everyone is born a minimalist; it’s culture that makes us think we want more than we really need. I wondered if there were any signs of the future minimalist in my personal history, but there are precious few:
Mom said I started talking at 6 months but didn’t bother to start walking until 15 months old, happy as a clam with whatever toy was nearby and if one wasn’t, to watch the world around me and make observations. I liked all my vegetables, too. I balked at putting toys away.
The most intense memories of preschool years were playing with a random handful of very small toys when visiting relatives or riding in the car–that’s when my imagination would take over and I’d get really zoned. I also become hooked on Bugs Bunny cartoons and drawing landscapes on a chalkboard in the kitchen and making up stories about what was happening in different houses and trees. I balked at putting toys away.
In grade school I loved to climb a cherry tree and sit up in it and read. I rigged a small basket to a jump rope tied to a branch so I could haul up a book or notebook and pencil, some candy, a small pillow, and the toy du jour. It was total bliss, and was especially fun when my cat would climb up and join me. After an accident in which I fell on a metal potholder weaving loom in my room and had to have stitches in my knee (and put a big dent in my tree-climbing for a while), I got a lot better about putting toys away.
The next fifteen years were pretty much standard-issue American female stuff, fashion and hair and car and first apartments. The part that stands out is a semester in a dorm room (after some major personal and domestic upheaval) with just a bed, desk, chair, my easel and art supplies, textbooks, and a handful of clothes, monastic by my standards then. It was probably the most productive few months of that entire period. The memory of how focused I was and how safe and comfortable in my own skin is still vivid, 33 years later. Too bad I didn’t take a hint from it at the time.
The following 25 years were buy, work, buy more, buffering social and personal insecurities with the fashionable or the trendy, or attempting a fantasy romantic lifestyle of flourishing gardens, beautiful interiors, marvelous objets d’art, swooshy clothes, etc. Occasionally there were purges, during moves or more personal upheavals, but I’d always fall back into old habits, even as I tried to make my life about something more, and go on shopping sprees, especially redecorating sprees. Nuts.
Not a very encouraging number of examples–I honestly couldn’t think of more. It’s in recent years that I kinda hit the wall:
With the past few years came health problems, and their attendant impact on finances and energy. Then came local economic impact, restricting employment and increasing cost of living. We downsized house and possessions and many activities. Even then, old habits and preferences wanted to pop up, such as my desire to transplant all my perennials from the old house to the new one. We gave everything our best shot after the national economy tanked, with more investment of time, energy, and money (and acquisition of work-related goods). The economy changed other people, too, and oftentimes I did not like what I would see. At the same time I noticed I was not feeling particularly deprived, but I was still very worried.
Then finally sheer disgust with it all welled up in me and burst. It was like shattering walls of opaque glass, being able to see what was going on with me, and with the world around me, the cultural and market-driven conditioning. I stopped feeling afraid and insecure and manipulated by the economy. I recognized the weak-mindedness of inherited Victorian-era sentimentality and stopped needing to hang onto the craziest crap as if it somehow affirmed that I existed the day before yesterday or the decade before last. We established a rock-bottom budget and stuck to it. I stopped Playing House and buying shit just because it was cute or because I was bored, and the same with clothes. Abundance and a rich life started taking on a whole ‘nother sensibility.
This burst of awareness was more spiritual and psychological than simply exasperation at having too much stuff, because we’d already gotten rid of a lot of things before we moved here. A fundamental, seismic shift took place inside of me and I started seeing everything in my life from a new perspective: does it serve? Does it suit? Is it working? Is it honest? It is relevant? I saw that I was still trying to live life on terms that not only no longer worked but they weren’t very good terms to start with. It was time to get real, on all fronts.
I started by uncluttering my closet, then the basement, because that was the most immediate and practical expression of what I was experiencing. And oh, did it feel good! The residual effects were so great it was natural I would then tackle my working life, and I proceeded to turn that on its head as well. Then I looked at the way we cooked and ate and made huge (and yet inexpensive) changes in the kitchen, simplifying both the space and the process. My husband, somewhat skeptical at first, became convinced I wasn’t just going through a phase and is totally on board, helping me with every single bit of it and taking on the parts I can’t handle anymore, like the garden and of course the heavy lifting. Things are no longer fraught.
We aren’t done yet, but every time we unclutter, streamline, simplify, and rethink our expenditure of time, energy, and money, there’s so much more freedom and breathing space. The time and effort to remove things we no longer use or need is time well spent, and puts our possessions at a comprehensible level, which makes for a tremendous reduction in stress. It’s as if we make better decisions now, and life in general is more centered. The house is cleaner and better-maintained. We aren’t owned by our stuff, we aren’t owned by marketers. To hell with ’em. And we aren’t afraid of the economy or of the future, because we have faced down those fears and realized we will keep on keeping on no matter how things turn out.
As I sit here at the dining room table writing this, I can see plenty of little things in the room that I can get rid of and wouldn’t miss. But there’s enough space and serenity that I also won’t get in a twist if it isn’t dealt with soon. Our stuff is now reduced to a level where it isn’t taking up too much of our thoughts, let alone our space, and that’s another kind of minimalism–uncluttered, unstressed internal space. It gives us more room inside ourselves for the good things like creativity and gratitude.
Minimalism, then, is a state of mind, a point of view, a practice. It has manifested itself in my life in the form of fewer possessions, less clutter, frugal living, less waste of any kind, streamlined use of space, uncluttered personal schedule, a tiny new business, better care of my health, a cleaner house, better use of free time, and has opened the possibility of even more positive changes as we go along the path. It’s given my husband and me a shared focus that works for us both, and has had a marvelous centering effect on our lives. We still have a long way to go–there are still things left over from my former business to get rid of, we will have to decide what to do about our vehicles (we really only need one, but doing without any is impossible where we live), and there are still some books and boxes of stuff to deal with, although not so many anymore. A single point of view affects all these aspects of life. Another minimalist might come into my home and consider it a cluttered and self-indulgent place, and yet another might wonder what we’ve done with important “essentials,” or that we are still leaving too large an ecological footprint. To them I say, it’s a path. It doesn’t end. It’s a way of being, a practice. I’ve even gotten better about putting toys away, too.
That’s my take on minimalism, and that’s how I got there.
What’s your take, and how did you get there? I would love to know 🙂
Check out my other blog: Minimalist Cooking