My husband Ben and I were married five months to the day after our college graduation. We moved into a condominium with red and blue carpet and all the wallpaper in the world. Bit by bit we scraped and sanded, primed and painted until it started to feel like home. It started as kind of a little dump…and then it was less of a dump and we were so excited to begin living adult lives in our not-a-dump home. So we did what felt like the adult thing to do, buy stuff to fill our little house.
We didn’t know anything about anything. The first time my husband used the dishwasher (he’d washed dishes by hand at his parents and in college), he used liquid dish soap and completely flooded our little kitchen with bubbles. Me? I remember having friends over and making a cake that was so hard that I could solidly knock on it with my fist…and I still served it!
We had so much to learn about daily living. We didn’t know what we were doing, and we didn’t know what we needed, so we unwittingly started trying to recreate our parents’ homes. We received a bunch of coffee makers as wedding gifts, so even though we didn’t drink coffee, we set one up in the kitchen and put the others in a spare room. We tried to build a middle-age life with 23 year-old brains and budgets.
Not surprisingly, it didn’t work out. Stuff piled up that we couldn’t manage. Wedding gifts that we’d never used but couldn’t return. Clothes we’d never wear again. Textbooks. Half-realized crafts and DIY projects. I was teaching at the time so I thought just about anything had the potential to come in handy for a future lesson plan – but until that mythical lesson came, all that potential lived in bins. Plus, Ben is…let’s call it sentimental. Every notebook from college. Comic books. So. Many. Baseball cards. Shrinky dinks of Optimus Prime. A disembodied ALF head. You get it.
We shoved it all in a spare room and closed the door.
We moved into a bigger house – with a basement and room to move all the stuff we didn’t want to see. We did some purging here and there. We started making regular donations. But nothing in us fundamentally changed until Ben (rather suddenly) got a job out of state. I was on maternity leave with our second son. Trying to pack up the house while taking care of an infant and three year old while Ben was at work almost broke me. Maybe the exhaustion of parenthood paired with the task of packing up an entire house crystallized the insanity of the situation for me. To have these things, put them in boxes, drive them across the country so they could sit in a new place made me question what I could live without.
All of it. I could live without all of it.
I remember thinking that the house could blow away in the wind to OZ and as long as all living beings were safe, I wouldn’t miss a thing.
There were things I loved, sure. Photos and art. Baby clothes and toys. Notes from my mom and sisters. But when all those precious things are tangled with the filler, the important stuff is harder to find and engage with. At that point, I would’ve rather that it all disappear and start from scratch than sort and pack all the nonsense.
From that time on, I’ve had a new relationship with things. I knew I wanted to be different than I’d been before, but I didn’t exactly understand what that would look like. The norms of society shout that we need SO MUCH. And while I started to recognize that as simply untrue, I didn’t exactly identify with the minimalist movement either. I feel like my defining characteristic is coziness. I didn’t know if there was such a thing as a cozy minimalist so I had to forge my own path through the material world.
Bit by bit over the years, I’ve gotten to a place with things, with money, and with having that feels pretty healthy for me. I share my thoughts about this only because I think sharing is pretty much the answer to every problem in the world. Certainly not because I’ve found an Ultimate Solution, but because maybe some piece of my story will provide a bit of insight for someone else’s journey.
Here’s where I’ve landed (for now):
I think of my life as a collection of spaces – not always physical spaces, though. The space of Home, yes, but also the space of Mind. Body. Time. Energy. Those spaces are precious and sacred because they are the building blocks of a life. They are scarce and finite. For a thing to come into my space, it needs to add value. Value is an absolutely a personal assessment, not something assigned by others. The most expensive item could be a burden under certain circumstances, while something inconsequential in the eyes of the world can have true value for an individual.
Today I saw a sweet little Valentine’s day wreath. I thought about the price for that wreath…not the monetary cost, but the space in the house, the time to put it up and take it down, the effort of keeping it clean and then putting it in storage until next year. Even though each of those things are so tiny it might seem like they’re nothing at all, it became immediately clear that the wreath wasn’t worth any of my space. When you bundle a thousand tiny, light burdens together, they make a heavy load. Your spaces get filled with things that don’t deserve to be there.
Sometimes I see things that I think are great, but for whatever reason, I don’t want to make room for them. That’s when I think, “It’s nice that you exist.” It’s nice to see or feel or experience something lovely. But just because it’s lovely, I don’t need to invite it in. I don’t need to give up any of my spaces, any piece of myself to something that doesn’t add sufficient value.
I do get confused sometimes, though. Stationery, lipstick, and plants have unnatural sway over me. For those things I need physical spaces – containers that I’ve made up my mind to not overfill – because the mental spaces I’ve made for them don’t have firm enough borders. And extra stuff does come in, too – usually in the hands of children. That’s okay because kids are on their own journey of finding balance with these things. Without practice, they might not be able to recognize, define and appreciate their own spaces.
Since I started approaching things this way, I’ve found that I spend much less money, and feel a greater appreciation of the things we do have. Not to mention reclaiming the time and energy that was once spent on finding, acquiring, and caring for extra stuff. It feels like there’s more of all the important things – not because our circumstances have actually changed – but because of a shift in my perspective of what we really need.
The world tells us that our spaces should be filled or overflowing with toys and trinkets and treasure. That acquiring and having will fill the holes in us. The world is a liar. Things can be great and can be fun, but they can also be thieves. Stealing our time and our peace. Listen to yourself and notice your spaces. And trust yourself about what you want and what you need, not this crazy world.