A few years ago I thought I had cancer. My doctor was concerned so I had a barrage of tests including a biopsy of the lymph node in my neck that was jutting out like Frankenstein’s bolts. The mystery of the neck lump was never solved, but I didn’t have cancer so I tried to just accept the benign results and move on. Less than a year later, on my first ever visit to a dermatologist, I had to have a biopsy on the spot for something “very concerning” that I had previously only considered annoying on my face. I take medication that can cause cancer so I figured I couldn’t dodge that bullet twice in one year and settled into my new reality as a cancer patient before finding out that I did not in fact have skin cancer, just a weird and concerning bump that turned out to be nothing. I’d like to thank my Irish ancestors for the billions of freckles that will all eventually become “concerning” as I age.
As a person with unpredictable health due to chronic illness, I have a habit of powering through chores when I feel myself slipping toward a flare. I get the urge to do the laundry and prep meals in case I end up in the hospital and can’t be with my family and keep the house running efficiently, the way you nest and prepare before you have your baby. When I thought I might have cancer, I got the same urge to get the house in order in case I was incapacitated by treatment. After it occurred to me I might die, I started thinking about the burden of sorting and disposing of my belongings when my family would be adjusting to life without Mommy. Some of it was shame at having people sift through my stuff to declare most of it too shabby to donate, but mostly I knew my regular illness was already a struggle for my family when I was incapacitated, so cancer would be a much magnified version of that. I minimized my closet first, since I am the least emotionally attached to clothing, and kept going through everything I own, right down to the number of whisks in my kitchen.
After weeks of waiting for biopsy results and discovering that I just had a random skin oddity and not aggressive cancer like my anxiety had convinced me I had, I kept minimizing. After all, I could be hit by a car tomorrow and my family would still have to throw away my never worn novelty socks that I kept just in case. Once I was satisfied with my work, it occurred to me that weeding out the junk and only saving what was meaningful or useful would not just be useful if tragedy struck, but helpful for my every day life as a thriving and cancer-free human. Why should I waste precious time before my next inevitable health scare pushing aside pants that don’t fit to find the pairs that do?
This is the simplified story of how I moved from decluttering to minimalism. I didn’t have a lot of stuff lying around when I started out because I had already decluttered and organized my belongings, but the serious and real work of assessing my belongings for function and love came later. Marie Kondo helps you declutter by eliminating anything that doesn’t “spark joy,” but minimalism asks you if you need it and if you love it. Would you wear it today? Is it in a state of disrepair and was always going to be fixed someday but it never actually got done? If you haven’t taken care of it, you must not love it, and it only serves as a nagging reminder whenever you see it. If your life had an end date, what would you wear? What would you read? If only your favorite stuff was in your home, every day would be your favorite day. Wear only your favorite clothes, use only your favorite pan, put on only your favorite mascara (for the love of KonMari get rid of the samples — they dry out immediately and are probably expired).
It’s more apparent now because we are spending more time at home. Imagine all the micro-itches of inconvenience your clutter causes. Opening a drawer that sticks because it’s over-stuffed. Shoving your clothes down the hanging rod to squeeze in one more sweater. Clearing space on the countertops to use them for cooking. Digging through shattered bronzer to find your eyeliner. Each itch it small, but add them up and you’re covered in hives. If you thought you might not have all the time in the world, would you want to spend whatever you’ve got left scratching yourself to bits?
It’s okay to have a lot of favorites. If you love fashion and have a collection of shoes you truly love, you should absolutely keep them. And just think — if you minimize elsewhere, that’s more money and space for shoes! Just like a piece of writing is fluid and can be tailored and edited with every reading, your life and home can be edited daily. You decide you love your shoes, but six months later admit that one pair gives you wretched blisters and you push it aside to pick others to actually wear, so you let them go. If tragedy struck tonight, would you want to have spent your last hours on earth sticking Band-Aids over blisters from shoes you don’t love?
Minimalism isn’t boring or austere if you are neither of those things. It’s the freedom to decide exactly what you want and go after it without getting itchy along the way. My first sips of minimalist Kool-Aid have come just in time, now that Gen Z has declared side-parting your hair to be out and jeans without stretch in vogue. Sorry, but I look like Severus Snape with a center part and if you take the stretch from my jeans you won’t ever see me out of leggings again. I am currently only wearing stretchy pants that are my favorite and tossing anything that offends me. I part my hair to the side on the rare occasion it isn’t in a sloppy bun (not sexy-sloppy, just regular unkempt), and it suits me just fine. My tastes could certainly change, especially when I’m allowed to leave the house and see people in person again, but I’m not going to buy the new cool jeans just because some TikTok children tell me I’m passé. We all know those trendy but uncomfortable pants will get pushed aside in our closets until we admit that we are not Gen Z and shouldn’t try to fit in with the internet infants of the moment. Also, who wants pants that don’t stretch? I am a moving, breathing, resting human and I will wear what suits my life as long as I get to live it.