Minimalism (Wow, The Grapes of Wrath Really Did a Number On My Head)

by Ashley on May 4, 2011

In the years since I alone moved a thousand miles away from home, I’ve become something of a minimalist.  I didn’t do it on purpose, but I only brought with me what could fit in my Civic and then when I got here, I didn’t have any money.  You may be assuming that I became a minimalist, because I didn’t have the money to buy anything. Well, no.  You’ve heard about my debt, right?

What happened was that life is expensive.  And it took me a while to realize that. Then there was a year and a half of denial. (Then I started this blog.)  Then I was unemployed and I realized the ground underneath my feet was not nearly as stable as I thought it was.  Then global financial crisis hit, and I realized the ground was not as stable under anyone’s feet as I thought it was.

At that point I knew I was in trouble, but I held onto just enough denial both to keep me from completely freaking out and to keep me from doing something about my debt.  When I did let myself think about my situation, I was panicked. The Summer before, I had stupidly chosen to read The Grapes of Wrath, and in the back of my mind was this idea that I would have to take what little of my stuff I could carry and head West to California.  Then I realized I was already in California and I was like, “well, that’s one less thing to do.”

I had a good job by then, so I suppose these thoughts about killing a man and sleeping in a tent by the side of the road were not serious, but I had this very real feeling that I should be free and mobile.  Stuff started to seem like a burden.  The preoccupation with efficiency and organization I’ve had my entire life combined with this panic about stuff, and I started getting rid of things.  I (really really stupidly) was continuing to buy new stuff, but not at the rate at which I was giving the rest away.  Once I’d had so much stuff that after downsizing from a one bedroom, it didn’t all fit comfortably into my studio apartment, and now my closet was more full of empty hangers than anything else.

It was another move and another year before it occurred to me that I could stop waiting for a miracle or the (more probable) Grapes of Wrath scenario and just pay off the debt myself.  So I spent a year not buying stuff.  And, you know, not buying stuff had almost zero impact on my quality of life.  I qualify with almost only because I currently enjoy the freedom I have to buy things when I want them.  Though, as it happens, having the freedom to buy things makes those things less desirable.

So, here we are, and I don’t know if I sound like an absolute crazy person with a fear of stuff, but no amount of stability or money in the bank is making this impulse for minimalism go away.  There is at least a small element of crazy to it–an anxiety about being responsible for so many things.  And there are points where I have to question myself.  Why don’t I want to commit to big purchases, like a comfortable bed or a newer car?  Why do I still feel this need to be free and mobile when I’m not going anywhere?  Am I afraid of something?  Do I have a fear of attachment?

I don’t know, so I will continue to ask myself those questions, but in the meantime, I am finding more and more good reasons to live minimalistically.  I feel strongly the ethical impulse to live less wastefully, and I don’t find my personal interests at all at odds with this.  In the fourteen months it took me to get out of debt, I learned what everyone has always said and what I had suspected even in the years I was handing over my credit card far too often: stuff does not make you happy.  When you find happiness in the places it truly exists, you won’t even need that little moment of thrill at the sight of something new.  If happiness doesn’t take away that need for thrill, then take up cliff diving or something.

Paying off my debt was for me this really big move toward living more authentically.  When I am living authentically, and not hiding from my mistakes and fears, I don’t need the distraction of acquiring and collecting stuff.  I don’t even need the stuff itself.  I know pretty clearly the few things that I want out of life and, yes, sometimes those mountains look so high that I busy myself with purchasing the best equipment and unpacking and repacking my backpack so that everything is perfect, but the mountains don’t get any smaller and my desire to summit them doesn’t diminish either.  So, I stop with the distractions and just start climbing.

If this is all too metaphorical, what I mean literally is that I don’t spend my days off shopping anymore.  It makes some people happy for perfectly legitimate reasons, but it does not make me happy.  It’s just a distraction, so I’m better off asking myself what I’m hiding from, and then going home to make that scary call or sitting at my damn desk to write.  Having less stuff makes it easier for me to focus.  And when I’m not focused on those things I really want, I get to spend my time with people I like, and that’s probably the thing that makes me happiest.

Like most things, if you set the standard at perfection, then you will erase all of the benefits of living minimalistically.  I don’t want to live a life where I can’t buy that book I want to read or that really pretty shade of nail polish (I also don’t want to hand wash all of my own clothes).  But there are libraries if I don’t want to spend the money and e-readers if I’m just worried about owning too many things, and maybe before I buy that nail polish, I can take a look at the drawer full of bottles I already own (no one who has seen my nail polish collection would call me a minimalist).

I’m buying less stuff and walking instead of driving.  I continue to slowly pare down my possessions (slow is the way to do it).  The next big area to tackle is food where I waste a lot, but as I’ve mentioned before, changing my eating habits is, as stupid as this may seem, probably the most difficult thing for me.  We may have to revisit the points at which I lean toward crazy in all of this, but it feels right, so I’ll keep going.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Sophia May 4, 2011 at 5:58 am

I like this post (it makes me want to read Grapes of Wrath). I’m looking forward to becoming way more minimalistic upon my impending move. Of course, this will be by necessity and not by choice, but even if it wasn’t necessary I would choose minimalism. I’m just starting to get rid of (and sell) stuff now, and it’s feeling good!

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TJ May 4, 2011 at 6:44 am

The ironic thing about so much of the stuff that I’ve accumulated over time is, I tend to use it once and then it gathers dust somewhere. Like a CD, movie or a book. So I try not to buy these types of things frequently. Most of these items don’t have much resale value, either. Libraries and the rental $1 boxes definitely help. Food is by far my Achilles heel and I spend way too much there relative to everything else, but it will be the hardest to cut back on.

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Amy May 4, 2011 at 7:59 am
Clare - Never Niche May 4, 2011 at 8:02 am

“Though, as it happens, having the freedom to buy things makes those things less desirable.” EXACTLY. I have noticed this phenomenon. When my money is low and times are tough, I can think of a million things I want at any given retail / wine / grocery store. When I’ve got a cushion of money going, I don’t want to spend it at all. So strange.

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linda May 4, 2011 at 8:33 am

You just convinced me to return the two dresses I bought at Banana Republic. :( One of the dresses isn’t even for my life now. It’s for when I become one of those “ladies who brunch” and or for attending parent teacher conferences. Yeah.

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Jenny May 4, 2011 at 9:00 am

This post struck a chord with me. Physical stuff just seems to mentally overwhelm me. Whenever I part with something I get a kick out of realizing it wasn’t that important.

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AshleyD May 4, 2011 at 9:48 am

I’ve been procrastinating going through all my stuff and deciding what I NEED. Even moving last month didn’t help. Now I’ve decided that I’m making three piles this weekend: Keep, Donate, and Trash. Also, this is one of my top 10 favorite sentences ever: “When I am living authentically, and not hiding from my mistakes and fears, I don’t need the distraction of acquiring and collecting stuff.”

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TeacHer May 4, 2011 at 1:42 pm

I really, really love this post. Have you ever seen the movie No Impact Man? If not, you might want to check it out. It touches on a lot of the issues you discussed here. Anyway, there’s a line from the movie I really love. When discussing not buying anything new for a year, the wife of the documentarian says something like “at first, of course, I wanted to buy stuff, but I knew I couldn’t because of the project. Then, I stopped wanting stuff so much, and now I don’t really want anything. And part of me feels sort of sad, that the want is gone.”

Like you, I struggled to pay off a small mountain of debt and I had to radically change my lifestyle. This obviously meant SERIOUSLY reducing the amount of stuff I bought. Now that I can afford to buy the stuff I want, I’ve found that I really just don’t WANT as much stuff…aside from a treat at the grocery store or a new sweater once in a while, I haven’t REALLY wanted a material object in a long, long time. Partly, this is a huge relief. Partly, like the woman in No Impact Man, I feel sort of sad. I used to get a little emotional boost from buying a little present for myself. It was fleeting, of course, but it was possible. Now, when I buy stuff I either feel nothing at all or I feel guilty for buying something I didn’t need. I didn’t like my old relationship with buying stuff (it was wasteful, frivolous, and sort of out-of-control), but I’m not so sure I like my new relationship with buying stuff either.

I guess my point is, we evolve over time. Hopefully soon I’ll reach a good balance between wanting enough (to brighten up my day once in a while…or someone else’s) and not wanting too much. We’re all learning, all the time.

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Kat May 8, 2011 at 10:34 am

I love this post! I’ve been feeling the same way lately, wanting to diminish my possessions even further. I gave up shopping for four months and at the end of the four months I went shopping and ended up returning everything I bought. Sometimes I walk into my duplex and just get a strong urge to get rid of everything that is non-essential. So I can totally identify with your sentiments. So glad there are other people my age seeking out minimalism as opposed to what our dominant culture says about acquiring as much stuff as you can!

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