I am not an expert on Minimalism, first and foremost. My life is not a textbook example of living with less, and while some people box up their excess stuff overnight and live their lives as minimalists starting the next day, that is not my story.
Growing up, my family moved about every three years. Even when we stayed in a city for longer, we moved houses or apartments during that time. I remember having a moving company pack our house for us, and when we got to our new place and started to unpack, we found our small bedroom trash cans in boxes, still with trash inside them. Professionals don’t throw away your trash for you, of course, so anything we’d neglected to get rid of before the movers came showed up in a box we had to ship and unpack.
When I move as an adult, I’m more aware of the sheer volume we have accumulated. We moved to a rental house in Austin when Hubs got a new job, and a year later we moved into our first house with our first baby and we had significantly more stuff (babies are small but require a ton of junk). The next time we moved, we’d had another baby, so two cribs, two wardrobes, toys for days, plastic dishes, bottles, swing, and so on forever. When we arrived in El Paso, I told Hubs if we wanted another baby we should have one immediately because I needed to get rid of all the infant-only stuff in my house, as if older children don’t have their own menagerie of stuffed animals, blocks, crafts, vehicles, and every other item under the sun. But, we had another baby, and a few months later I got to get rid of the enormous baby swing, the bouncer, the Bumbo seat, the high chair, and, by God, the stretched and misshapen maternity wardrobe that I’d worn for three pregnancies.
According to the KonMari Method, clothes should be purged first. You drag all your clothes out of your closets and dressers and pile them in one place so you can essentially be repulsed by the largess of your unnecessary wardrobe, and then you pick up each item, one by one, deciding if it brings you joy. Joy? Keep. No joy? Trash or donate. For me, when I did the KonMari Method, I had a hard time really being brutal and cold about my clothing. I knew I wasn’t planning to have more babies, but I held on to several items that were too big, and also stuff that was too small, because my health is completely unpredictable and for a few months every year I end up on a medication that causes weight gain, and then on a liquid diet that causes weight loss. Clothes are first to go because it should be easy, but for me it wasn’t. I hadn’t worn nice clothes in a year, so I should have been able to let them go, but I was in a strange season of life between having a baby and being able to go on dates with my husband where activewear would not be sufficient, so I didn’t want to let everything I wasn’t using disappear. (If you decide to purge your clothing after reading this, remember this has been a weird year. If you decide to only keep what you’ve worn in the last year, which was mostly quarantine, you’ll end up with sweatpants, bunny slippers, and zero bras.)
Personally, I think if you are planning on scaling down your belongings or living a more minimal lifestyle, you can start with something smaller. You probably delete thirty emails a day you don’t open, so make the effort to unsubscribe from that junk rather than just swiping through them each morning. Without the junk, important messages will stand out. Open your fridge and ask yourself if you are willing to eat each item today, and if you start to hedge and tell yourself a condiment might not be as fresh as you’d like, or maybe you can figure out what to make with it another time, toss it. Ingredients that are fresh and can be used today should be clearly visible, not surrounded in expired mustards.
I did go through the entire KonMari process and purged everything (that belonged to me), but living a minimalist lifestyle is an ongoing process. A year after I did it the first time, I went through my clothing again and got rid of stuff I was sure I needed to keep but still hadn’t worn a year later. I think if you purge your whole house in a week you might start to feel overwhelmed and afraid you are getting rid of too much, so that by the end you are making choices colored by that fear and not by joy. And of course I still shop, and sometimes something I order online doesn’t serve me as well as I’d hoped, so I end up donating newer things, too. I also read two books by The Minimalists, and they talk about “anchors” weighing you down. For example, the authors made really good money at a big company, and so they bought large houses, because that’s what you do, right? They spent every weekend doing yard work, sorting, organizing, cleaning, and maintaining these big homes with empty bedrooms for absolutely no reason. If it’s harder to own something than not to own it, you don’t need it. The authors downsized to smaller homes because they weren’t able to live free and fulfilling lives with such massive anchors weighing them down.
Now, I had a lot of issues with The Minimalists’ books, so I’m not sure I’d recommend them unless you are already familiar with the theories of Minimalism. Encouraging people to quit their jobs because you don’t need a lot of money to live is pretty elitist, since most people aren’t getting bonus packages that continue to pay out after they abandon their employment (and presumably their health insurance). The main author, Joshua Fields Millburn, is a pretty severe minimalist, and he owns like five shirts. He also makes a living talking about how he has very few possessions and is the head of his own company, so he can pretty much wear whatever he wants. He, like me, has OCD, and I can see certain aspects of his life that are affected by a form of anxiety rather than a pious desire to prove he needs only a spatula and a can-opener to survive. I did like his book, Everything That Remains, which is a more personal account of his journey to his current lifestyle.
My issues with The Minimalists are mostly in two categories — giving troubling advice in areas where they are not experts, and a thick aura of condescension when writing about people who are not minimalists. Firstly, there is a chapter in their book on Minimalism related to food, which starts with, “we aren’t doctors, but…” and it absolutely should have stopped there. Unfortunately, they continued by suggesting we all become vegetarians or vegans or only eat wild salmon and minimize all intake of food, since the key author lost a significant amount of weight as part of his path to a minimalist lifestyle. To assume that all people need to eat less is incredibly irresponsible, especially when people who might be drawn to this lifestyle sometimes have anxiety disorders (like the author and yours truly) and disordered eating is a branch on that same tree. The food you eat to fuel your life has nothing to do with how many pairs of socks you own. Secondly, The Minimalists are setting out to convert the masses to their prescribed way of life, and the way they deride people who value things or love gifts bothers me. Maybe I wouldn’t notice this if I didn’t have kids who love broken toys, or a husband who collects video games, but to say that everyone would be happier living a minimalist lifestyle is ridiculous. Some people feel uncomfortable with negative space or a neutral color palette, and those people are not wrong, they are just not me.
That said, there is definitely good content on their website and they have one Netflix documentary already and a second one coming out Jan 1, and their featured speakers are often insightful. Plus, their business plan is truly revolutionary — their book begins not with trademarks and copyrights, but with a suggestion to use and reproduce whatever speaks to you, just give credit to the authors and when you finish the book, give it to someone else who would like it. They also give out their personal cell phone numbers and will respond if you send them a message. Joshua Fields Milburn is a self-described “hugger” and I’ve thought of him a few times during the pandemic, wondering how he is handling human connection while social distancing, so I obviously don’t hold a grudge about the one chapter I disliked in their book.
I am a fan of The KonMari Method, and would absolutely recommend her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. While the whole process may not fit every person’s needs, the overall themes in the book can be useful. Maybe for practical reasons you can’t upend your entire house until you have decluttered every nook and cranny, but I do agree with pulling everything out in one category and going through every item individually. If you just decide to “KonMari” your closet one day, you won’t have the full picture of your total belongings unless you dump out your dressers, too. The danger here, is confusing organizing with minimizing. Marie Kondo is not technically a minimalist, she just recommends you only live with what brings you joy. If you decide to sort through your belongings, keep this in mind: joy is not a dollar amount. I have trouble getting rid of cosmetics or skin care that didn’t work out for me, thinking that they were pricey and shouldn’t end up in the trash. But, what is the value of that product to me if it makes me break out or the lipstick color makes me look like a corpse? The answer is $0, no matter what it cost to purchase (this also helps when making future purchases — maybe you do extra research so you don’t waste money on another product that doesn’t spark joy). Don’t keep things because they have monetary value if they don’t have joyful value. My mother-in-law wanted to remodel her fireplace, and a contractor told her she just couldn’t rip out the stone that was there, because it was hard to find now and it would be a waste. If that stone isn’t what she wants to see when she is sitting in her living room, then it has no value (my mother-in-law introduced me to Marie Kondo, so I owe her a debt of gratitude).
When you search for Marie Kondo’s book on Amazon, the suggested products that pop up are drawer organizers and attractive storage solutions. Here is where you’ll have to be disciplined — minimizing/decluttering is not organizing. First you have to go through everything you own, no matter how you decide to do it, and keep what is important and remove the rest. Only then will you know what you need to store and organize. It is so tempting to run around The Container Store and snatch up everything that will make you feel decluttered, but you need to know what you’re working with first. I really tried to like The Home Edit, but their results are purely aesthetic. Instead of sorting through unnecessary items, they actually add things in order to make their rainbow scheme look balanced. Also, not everything should be organized like a rainbow, that is utter madness.
Once you decide what brings you joy and what doesn’t, the removal of excess makes it easier to see what you love. It turns out I read cookbooks like novels, make several recipes, and rarely go back to them. With the exception of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, plucked from my mother-in-law’s own kitchen cabinet, I tend to get rid of the books I’ve been through, even if I haven’t made every recipe. Cookbooks are just like regular books to me — once I’ve read them I give them to someone else to enjoy, except the complete works of David Sedaris, which Marie Kondo can pry from my cold, dead hands. I originally got rid of a few and within months I regretted my decision. Any book I want to refer to later should be tangible and not an ebook.
Which reminds me — draw your lines in the sand. Think about the joys in your life and the tools you need to participate. I went through my whole kitchen and got rid of expired things, stuff I registered for when we got married but never needed (this is what happens when you let a twenty year old into Crate and Barrel with an electronic bar code scanner) but one shelf in my pantry is always overflowing. Baking isn’t necessarily my passion, but I like to keep a well stocked baking shelf in case a kid asks to make something. Some of my best memories are cooking in the kitchen with my grandmother and I want to be prepared so I never have to say no, sorry, I don’t have cocoa powder. Also, I like skincare and face masks, so once I got rid of the other bathroom junk I decided to swap the makeup to a smaller drawer and give my skin products some space to spread out. How you shed and reorder is going to be personal to you, but if you need guidance, Marie Kondo is your gal.
It is important to remember that minimalism is not a competition, so when you start seeking out minimalist accounts to follow on Instagram, don’t be intimidated by one person’s thirty-item capsule wardrobe. Just like your jeans, this isn’t one size fits all. If you live somewhere like Hawaii where the weather is essentially the same all year, you could totally whittle down your wardrobe to the essentials. If you live somewhere with all four seasons and/or like to ski or scuba dive, you might have extra “essentials” others won’t. And it is possible to live with maximalists, with some strategic rearranging. My side of the bedroom is serene and bare, and his side has a book shelf and overflowing night stand. If you don’t feel like you can go full KonMari tomorrow, start with your email box, your DVR, your fridge door. Once you feel the benefits of decluttering in order to give prominence to your favorite items, you might feel inspired to read one of these books or watch the Netflix documentaries by The Minimalists, or Marie Kondo’s show on the same service. Minimalism can spread to other areas of your life, encouraging you to cut out activities that don’t spark joy in order to make time for things that mean more to you. And while I’m aware of the irony of a high word count devoted to doing more with less, I have so many thoughts on this subject because I don’t think the movement has just one complete spokesperson, and there are so many ways to benefit from the principles without ending up living in an empty apartment. So take what you will from all this, and maybe it’s just something to think about for another day as we all exhale a sigh of relief saying BUHBYE to 2020, but if you have any questions, feel free to reach out.
Happy New Year to you and yours, and I wish you health and happiness in 2021!