Today is a guest post from blogger buddy Ashley from Writing to Reach You. I first met Ashley at BiSC in 2011 and (much) earlier this year we were able to meet up briefly at the Austin Marathon! I’ve been very interested in Ashley’s posts on minimalism and asked her to share some thoughts here. I’m so glad she was able to! She also wrote the blog A Story of Debt , which I personally think is fantastic – AND she just published her very first e-book telling her story. Check out her sites and book for more info. You can also find her on Twitter at @writetoreach. Thanks, Ashley!
My name is Ashley and I blog at Writing To Reach You. Minimalism is one of the things I write about regularly, and I’m here today because Christa asked me to write about some of the thinking that goes behind learning to live with less. I feel like my story is kind of strange and not particularly inspiring. I didn’t make the philosophical or ethical decision to be a minimalist and then start getting rid of stuff. I’ve kind of always been obsessed with organization, and then in the Summer of 2007 I read The Grapes of Wrath and then in the Summer of 2008 I was unemployed for the first time, which forced me to finally face my debt problem, and then a couple months later the economy fell apart. Everything felt very uncertain in a way it never had before, and I found myself wanting to belong to fewer things and be free. I guess I felt that if we were packing up the truck and moving the family to California, I wanted to be ready.
In the years since then, my interest in minimalism has found a more solid foundation. It was initially motivated by fear and uncertainty, and traces of that are still there, but now I lean toward minimalism because it works for me and fits with the life I am creating for myself. I want to live different places and travel, which is hard to do when you have a bunch of stuff. I want to pursue my real interests, which means I’m never going to make much money, and that’s a reason not to focus on stuff. I have found that stuff doesn’t make me very happy, so I don’t want to spend my time collecting it. I have pinned a lot of my hopes and dreams on stuff and it has never delivered.
Christa mentioned feeling a desire to live a more simple life, but being too overwhelmed to know where to start. Actions and thoughts have a way of informing each other, and I have always found it most powerful to start by physically dealing with the things I own. You can think forever about the changes you want to make or you can just dive right in and make a huge mess of stuff. I’m never so willing to make a mess of things that involve feelings and people and possible embarrassment, but I don’t mind pulling my apartment apart until it looks worse than it did before and then trying to make sense of it. Take your time. Sit with stuff. Spend too much time wondering if you can part with that thing you forgot you even had until just now.
Some stuff you’ll consider giving away until you think of the absurd reasons you should keep it just in case. You can construct a whole life out of just in case, but the worst case scenario of you getting rid of that thing now is that you might have to buy something similar later. Is that really the emergency you’re making it out to be? Is it really such a risk to part with that thing now in case you need it for a Halloween costume in five years? Obviously not. There’s probably something else going on, and you can spend a lot of time thinking about it (and you probably will), but you don’t have to have that all figured out before you make the simple decision to give those devil horns to the Goodwill. The emotional stuff you’ll figure out in pieces as you take action, and parting with some of the easy stuff is a good way to get that process started.
What I find hardest to part with are the things that represent the different people I thought I might be. Getting rid of that stuff is like admitting to failure. As long as you hold onto it, you think you haven’t given up on those ideas. Sometimes it’s really obvious stuff like getting rid of those outdated guidebooks means you’re not really going to backpack around Europe. Or getting rid of those pants that are two sizes too small means you’re never going to be that small again. Sometimes it’s more vague: like, getting rid of those heels you never wear means you’re not going to be the person who wears shoes like that with the person you thought you’d be with when you bought them and living the champagne-sipping life you thought you’d have. But those things aren’t really dependent on the stuff you’re holding on to, and getting rid of it may be an important step to forgiving yourself for failures and moving on. When you do backpack around Europe, it won’t be because you held onto a bunch of guidebooks for ten years.
Letting go of the stuff that represents the people you might have been means that you finally have to be the person that you actually are, and that can be terrifying. It makes sense that we surround ourselves with stuff that represents our potential and best intentions, because it distracts us from the real work of change, which doesn’t begin with buying the right equipment. I try to remember that now, and tell myself that if I really want to do something, then I’ll start immediately with whatever I have. I’ll see how well I take pictures with my point-and-shoot before I spend hundreds of dollars on a DSLR. I’ll see if this interest in cooking lasts longer than a week before I buy all new pans.
When you strip away all of the stuff, you also have to deal with your feelings. When I first started aggressively getting rid of my belongings, I was still buying new stuff. Shopping was a way to distract myself from what I was feeling and buying new stuff was a way for me to focus all of my energy on creating this perfect life for myself out of things. I was systematically getting rid of the things in my life that weren’t perfect and replacing them with shiny, new things. I did this for a very long time. I didn’t stop until buying new stuff felt so empty that I couldn’t even pretend I was doing it for meaningful reasons. I have learned a lot since then about admitting what I really want from life and pursuing those things instead of distracting myself with all of the stuff I see as part of that life.
I say this in every post I write about minimalism, because I know someone like me would need to hear it that many times, but go slowly. The amount of stuff you own can be overwhelming, the thought of dealing with all of the emotions attached to that stuff can be overwhelming, and changing your life can be overwhelming. So get rid of things slowly and start with the easy stuff. Deal with the feelings as they come up, and don’t think you have to have it all figured out before you can start. You’ll learn more from the process than from thinking about it. If it’s really a change you want to make, then you’ll keep going back to it until things start making sense.