Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Minimalism - My Journey of Letting Go

2016 was undoubtedly the hardest year of my life. I have been struggling to find a context in which to write about my year and how it has shaped me into the person I am today. When I watched the documentary Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things, I found the frame in which I could fit my own personal snapshot of coming to grips with simplification. I'd like to preface this by saying what follows is not meant to chastise anyone who wants a house of their own with their own furniture - more that it is my journey to realize that material possessions are not a marker of adulthood, and the freeing power of doing more with less.

The Minimalism documentary, directed by Matt D'Avella, focuses on several people who have decided to take the leap and drastically cut their material possessions for the betterment of their lives. Two fellas that I particularly admire are Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, childhood friends who call themselves "The Minimalists" who after significant personal losses turned their backs on the lucrative salaries and fancy possessions of the high-powered corporate sales world to a stripped-down existence of living intentionally. Another woman, Courtney Carver, was inspired to start Project 333 - a way of paring down your wardrobe to the essentials - after she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Many of these people are using the idea of minimalism to take back control after devastating blows to their mental and physical health. As part of JIAM (June is Audiobook Month), check out my AudioFile Magazine review of The Minimalists' memoir, Everything That Remains. I should also mention audiobooks are a great step towards minimalism, since they literally take up no space at all.

The Minimalists: Nicodemus (left) & Millburn (right)
I am no stranger to downsizing.  As a child growing up, my mom encouraged me to routinely weed out my toys and clothes to make room for new, more relevant possessions. From the time I graduated college to the time I hit 30, I moved SEVEN times. I had an oasis of about four years in a 425 square-foot apartment, but other than that, it seemed my gypsy existence was inescapable. I was ready to put roots down, and by the American standard, that meant getting more space and stuff.

My husband Casey (then boyfriend) and I finally got our opportunity when we moved from the Northeast, where I had grown up all my life, to rural Tennessee in 2014. I had no idea what to expect, but I was fed up with cramped apartments. We found a house to rent that was way too much space for just the two of us, but  our options at the time were limited and it was affordable with a big back yard. Casey, my cat Toby, and I filled the place with light and love. I found a fulfilling full-time job with a short commute. Life was great.

The concept of minimalism was thrust upon me when Casey had to pursue other professional opportunities elsewhere, and the glass in this picture-perfect frame of existence started to crack. I had taken for granted this little world we had created for ourselves, filled with furniture, belongings, and wall art was a finite existence - that we had arrived at the perfect notion of "adulting." Nothing could be farther from the truth. When our beloved cat Toby, who many of you came to know and love through this blog, passed away suddenly and peacefully, the house felt insanely huge with just the two of us. Then the hammer truly came down - Casey did find another lucrative position - in Hong Kong.

As I processed these gaping hole punches in my current reality over the next weeks and months, I gazed around the house and thought, "Oh gods. What are we going to do with all this stuff?" The task of deconstructing a 3-bedroom house, although we had only lived there for two years, seemed insanely daunting. We had a dining room set, a living room set, rugs, lamps, etc. - you name it. And most of it had been given to us by family members. Then there was the emotional component - how could I possibly sell that leather couch? That was the leather couch Toby and I watched movies on all the time... - hitting my psyche HARD. It seemed such a Herculean task that for a moment all I could do was lie on said couch, paralyzed.

Through many months of effort, negotiation, local email classifieds, one massive yard sale, and no small amount of effort on the part of our family and friends, we got rid of the majority of our stuff. We rented a storage space for the rest, and moved out of said house last August. Did I mention we also got married somewhere in the midst of all this? We wanted to be rid of the storage rental space before moving to Hong Kong since it would be too much to handle from afar, so we made arrangements with wonderfully kind family members to hold the items from the unit with them for the time being. A friend of ours had agreed to take the bigger items down in his pickup truck - free of charge, as a wedding present - to a family member's home out of state. 

The final kicker - quite suddenly, this person could no longer make the trip for us. It is December, my time in Tennessee and the US is growing short, and I've still got a whole storage unit full of - I can call it this now - crap. The leather couch I couldn't bare to part with a few months prior was a massive eyesore. In fact, in the cold December light, it all looked sad and worn. In a moment fueled by months of disappointments, losses, and setbacks, I said, "I'm getting rid of this shit." And somehow, I did. I made one trip to the out-of-state relatives' home with only what I could fit in my Honda Accord, and then the rest of my possessions had to be made to fit - and just barely did, into one more car trip to my parents' home. A decade of independent living, reduced to two carloads. And to be totally honest? Those two carloads STILL felt like a ton of stuff. All of that had to be further reduced to two checked suitcases, one backpack, and one purse to take to Hong Kong. Talk about minimalist baptism by fire.

Now, almost six months later in my pre-furnished apartment a world away, I sit in front of a desk that isn't mine and is a far cry from my fancy and heavy-as-sin glass top monstrosity I used to have, and I don't even mind. I have acquired very little in the time I have been here and even some of that I am putting together in bags to pass on to better homes. My goal when I go back to my parents' house this summer is to get rid 50 percent of what I have stored there.

I realize that a mark of adulthood is not the house you buy, how much furniture you have, or how big your TV is. It's about how you handle life when it hits you hard. It is about accepting that everything is temporal, and rather than using that truth to fuel my insecurity,  that knowledge is helping me to live life more intentionally. To make time for the small things that end up being big things. To support that friend or family member going through a rough time. No one is going to remember us for the kind of couch we own, or how many electronic gadgets we have. No one says at someone's funeral, "Wow, remember grandpa's iPhone? That was slick." We are remembered for the actions that we take and for the love we share. That's what minimalism is about. Less is truly more.


  1. I loved this whole article. I saw the same documentary months ago, and combined with the horror show moving to our current apartment was with crafting supplies that hadn't been touched in over a year and fabric for costumes I won't do, I've been de-cluttering. Gary found a box from the last time we cleaned out that was marked "Box of dirt." It was potting soil I kept for some godawful reason. I dumped it into our landlord's backyard. We actually have space to go into our bike shed and get our bikes. Now the big hassle is the wedding stuff. I can't wait until all the decor is gone, either taken by aunties the day of or sold to other brides with their dreams in the area.

  2. I never put together that most people arrive at minimalism after some life changing event, but you are so right! It was a heart bypass surgery for me at the age of 42. When I had healed enough to truly think about what had happened to me, it seemed like my priorities suddenly shifted and minimalism has been the thing I craved all along.

    I'm sorry about your kitty. I'm a cat lover, too.

  3. Really appreciated this! I have been reflecting too on how, when I was 30, and couldn't afford a house, I wanted those same markers of adulthood, whether it's a sofa or mixing bowls or a certain set of dishes. And when the time came to move, I was kicking myself. Now I look at the same stuff as assets or liabilities. Because moving is a pain and a big expense.