A Vow to Minimalism

For years — decades — I’ve had an idea on my mind. In the next few months, I plan to make it official:

I am a minimalist.

Don’t get me wrong; I have no interest in sack-wearing, homegrown-kale-eating voluntary simplicity. I want some of the effluvient messiness that just comes with a full and rich life well-lived. I actually like that my memories — and, in the past, my shelves and closets — have been lined with the detritus of dresses I wore once, aborted hobbies, books I’ve loved. One of the best things money can buy is the ability to make mistakes.

For a couple of millennia, possessions — literally — meant civilization. And it wasn’t just being materialistic; owning stuff represented freedom, health, time. Imagine what it must have felt like in 488 AD to own a comb. (“Hey, Bob, your kids still covered with lice? Bummer for you, dude.”) Or ink and papyri. Or, god forbid (heh heh), religious icons. Visit prehistoric or ancient tombs and you’ll see wealthy landowners buried with their grave goods — beads, gold, a few thousand terra cotta warriors — the equivalent of being buried in a modern-day Ferrari, perhaps.

Stuff is a bit like fat or sugar. In the era we needed to hoard it, nothing was more important. Now that we have too much of it, the excess is what’s hurting us.

A cultural shift

Here’s my theory: In the developed world, we’re maybe a decade or so away from a post-post-industrial society. When your personal 3D printer or an Amazon drone can get you just about anything within the hour or you can rent everything from artwork to a funeral casket, ‘stuff’ just won’t hold the same status and value it once did.

My favorite Happy shirt and my grandparents' travel map, covered in mesothelioma.
My favorite Happy shirt, my rollerblades, and my grandparents’ travel map, covered in mesothelioma.

After a long career in travel writing and then losing 80% of my stuff in an asbestos-laden house fire 1½ years ago … and then moving internationally via three Fedex boxes (where two of us live on one income in a tiny flat), I’ve become very mindful of what I don’t need, and how much I value what I do have.

A philosophy of minimalism

Being able to choose minimalism is an incredibly privileged position. I will never forget the first moment after the fire when I was physically, uncomfortably cold because I just didn’t own enough clothing to keep me warm. In my life, here’s what I want my possessions to give me:

  1. Utility
  2. Health
  3. Growth
  4. Joy
  5. Aesthetics
  6. Serenity

For me, possessions are not about:

  1. Overwhelm
  2. Obligation
  3. Status
  4. Fantasy (well, unless they’re for that kind of fantasy)
  5. Beholdenness

Before the fire, I’d been banned by my physical therapist from rollerblading. My rollerblades sat in my closet, eye level, for eight years. I felt sad and a little guilty every time I opened my closet. I just checked Craigslist, and there are a dozen pairs of rollerblades for $20 or less — some $1 or free. If I magically am able to rollerblade again, I could buy or rent them.

The vow

My partner Jarmo and I have a goal. Once we set up our new house this fall, we want to aim to own no more than 100 possessions each: 100 for him, 100 for me, 100 for ‘us’. It’s our vow, which means we get to make our own rules. The 100 number is a loose way to make sure all of our possessions are in our home mindfully and deliberately.

Recycling good; avoid better.

We’ve decided lots of categories count as one possession — workout clothes, underwear, cutlery, the refrigerator magnets we’ve bought everywhere we’ve ever been together.* Since we’re fully in the digital age (which I entered only after I lost all my books and CDs in the fire), all of our media are now on Kindles or laptops. We understand we will be almost impossible to buy gifts for, but we’re both of the mind that giving a gift should never be out of obligation. (That’s another post.)

What I’m hoping to gain is a sense of fully appreciating and valuing what I have, and knowing that every one of my possessions serves at least one of the six purposes above, preferably two or three. I grew up feeling like many people around me put possessions above connection, health, or joy, and I’ve seen many a gift come with a side dose of beholdenness. Jarmo grew up in Finland, where even neighboring Sweden’s Ikea was considered a little flashy, clutter-wise.

What I want to lose is that feeling of being held back by stuff. Of owning holiday items that get used for one day or two weeks a year. Of having 20 skirts when I only wear four. Of holding onto a piece of artwork that reminds me of a time I’d rather forget. Staying in London where most flats come furnished has also made me rethink stuff. Most people move with a few boxes in one taxi ride these days.

Here’s what I don’t want to lose: Hobbies. Richness. Beauty. Taking chances. Leaping into the abyss. Expensive sushi dinners when I can afford them. Knee-high boots in black and, if I can find them in my size one day, brown. I bought, and donated, a calligraphy set once. I was sure I’d love it, and I don’t regret the initial hope or the disheartening realization that I have the artistic patience of a six-year-old. There’s a big difference between fullness and excess, and I’m hoping to aim for the former.

* If you’re stopping by Girona, Spain any time soon, let us know. The one magnet we’re missing is from the city where we met.

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