minimalist me

I’m not a minimalist, but I want to be.

For the last few months, I’ve been a daily visitor to Wise Bread, a website devoted to frugal living.  As you might have guessed, many of the articles on Wise Bread are related to spending less money, consuming less, and saving more.  Although I find Wise Bread to be a great site, I want to make changes in my life that don’t solely revolve around money.  One article in particular, “The Tyranny of Stuff,” sparked my curiosity about minimalism and what living a minimalist lifestyle actually looks like.  Thus the search for information began.

Two sites that have been the most helpful to me are The Minimalists and The Everyday Minimalist.  Both sites have content that provide information about minimalism and minimalist lifestyles and are good starting points for anyone interested in decreasing the number of possessions they own and decluttering their living spaces.  I place the emphasis on these sites being starting points.  What I have learned while researching this topic (and admittedly, that research is still in the early days; I am in no way pretending to be an expert) is that the definition of what constitutes living a minimalist lifestyle is a highly personal one.  This has left me trying to define for myself what it would mean for me to live a minimalist lifestyle.  I think that my definition is fairly simple: I want to have less stuff, buy less stuff and consume less.  It sounds simple, but I know that in practice, this is going to be no easy task.  I live in culture that values consumption, possession and ownership.  Plus, I have spent my life accumulating stuff.  Getting rid of said stuff is not going to be easy, and that’s partially due to the value that I place on stuff.  This has led me to realize that living a minimalist lifestyle is not just about reducing my physical possessions, but it’s also about changing my mindset in terms of what I value, and why I value it.

One night while watching Criminal Minds, I heard the following quote by Peace Pilgrim: “Anything you cannot relinquish when it has outlived its usefulness possesses you, and in this materialistic age a great many of us are possessed by our possessions.”  I had never heard the quote before, but it resonated with me strongly.  For me, it conveys so well where I am mentally in terms of everything I own.  I no longer want to be possessed by my possessions, and I’m finally ready to do what is necessary to free myself.

I have thought about a first step I can make toward reducing my possessions.  I have resolved to reduce my book collection by 25% by the end of September (in case you are wondering, I counted my books this week so that I would know exactly how many I had to get rid of to meet my goal; I own 737 books which means I have to get rid of 185 books to reduce my collection by 25%).  I have to be honest.  The idea of getting rid of 25% of my books is anxiety-producing.  I know this is ridiculous, but that doesn’t make it any less true.  I’ve shared my decision with a few close friends and have gotten a variety of responses.  My best friend said “Good for you!” and a colleague said “Why would you want to do that?”.  This pretty much covers the extremes I have felt within myself after making the decision.  I’ve been thinking about why my choice causes me no little amount of stress.  One reason is that I have measured my life by the number of books I own. Books are a part of my identity.  I’m a bibliophile, and I’ve always felt that my collection will say something about me to anyone who peruses it.  Letting go of even a small part of my collection feels like I’m letting go of a part of myself.  Indeed, I may feel this way because it’s actually true.  Another reason I have chosen to begin by reducing my book collection is one of practicality–there is likely a move and a career change on the horizon, and it’s doubtful that my new career will necessitate that I own a large collection of books because I’m teaching them. Knowing the reasons that I’m doing this and reminding myself why I’m doing this won’t make selecting what books to get rid of and then actually parting with them any easier.  Ultimately, though, I think that taking this step is the right thing for me right now.

I have also thought about one change I could make and sustain that would move me toward the minimalist lifestyle I want.  While getting rid of my books is about reducing what I own, this change is about buying less and consuming less.  Specifically, my goal is to buy one item, not multiples of the same item, whenever possible.  I am the only person in my household, and yet when I buy groceries, I frequently buy more than one of something so that I’ll have it on hand and won’t have to buy it the next time, such as bottles of olive oil and vegetable stock.  Going forward, I’m going to only buy one item because in most cases, that one item is sufficient for whatever meal I’m going to make during the week.  I don’t have to stockpile.  The grocery store is five minutes away, and I doubt there’s going to be a run on olive oil anytime in the near future.

Those are my two goals to help me get started.  Once I have mastered one, I’ll add a new one.  For me, it’s all about making sustainable, meaningful changes so that I can become the person I want to be.  Someday I’ll be able to say I’m a minimalist, and reflect on how that changed my life.  Stay tuned for updates on my progress.

summer cleaning

Have you ever tried to clean out your life?  What do you keep? What do you leave behind? How do you decide what to hold onto and what to let go of?

Just before I sat down to write this post, I was shredding some old documents.  One of my tasks this summer has been to finally, FINALLY, go through the last remaining piles of paper I have had lying around since my move last summer.  You know how it is when you’re packing and moving—some stuff you just don’t have time to go through and so you throw it in a box, and you tell yourself that you’ll deal with it when you get to your new place.  It’s taken me a year, but I have at last gotten around to completing this task.  While shredding and sorting this morning, it occurred to me that what the shredding and the sorting of these piles of paper really represent is my continuing attempt to clean out my life.

Cleaning out your life.  What does that even mean?  I think the first time I put this process into words that held any meaning for me was at the start of my final year in graduate school.  I was teaching, writing my dissertation, searching for jobs, and looking ahead to the end of the school year when I would likely have to pack up my life and move it elsewhere.  I wanted to get a head start on that process, but it occurred to me that it wasn’t just physical things like papers, books, old clothes, broken shoes, and all the other ephemera and stuff that we accumulate in this business of life that I needed to sort through and choose what to keep and what to give away.  I also had intangible things cluttering my life—doubts, insecurities, fears, anxieties.  I had also gained a lot of weight over the course of my doctoral program and I wanted to take steps to lose those pounds.  Perhaps even more detrimental, I realized that I had a couple of toxic relationships in my life that I needed to let go of and put behind me.  It took some time, but I slowly became aware of a desire to clean out my life—to get rid of everything that was keeping me from being the person that I wanted to be, even if who I wanted to be wasn’t exactly clear to me.  What I did know was that who I was at that time in my life was not the person I wanted to be.

That light bulb moment was almost two years ago, and since then I have worked steadily to cleanse my life of so many material and immaterial things that I no longer want, need, or aren’t spiritually, emotionally, or physically good for me.  These lingering piles of paper remind me that there is still progress to be made and work to be done because the truth is that two years later, I am still not the person I want to be.  Writing this post has resulted in an important revelation:  I’m still a work-in-progress, and I’m still evolving into the person that I want to be.  This is okay, but this revelation can’t be a stopping point.  I have to keep changing and evolving and striving.

A few years ago, someone posed the following question to me:  what is the theme song for your life?  My response was fairly immediate: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2.  In the years that have passed, my theme song hasn’t changed, and admitting that is somewhat disheartening.  It’s that understanding that has inspired me to try to make sense of various things going on in my life.  Enter these Thursday contemplations.   The lesson and take-away from today’s contemplations: that change—lasting change—is hard, sometimes painful, but necessary.  Also, I need to really accept the fact that it’s time to make some difficult decisions. The wait-and-see approach I have adopted in the last couple of years is no longer viable.  If I want the theme song for my life to change, I need to make it change.