From Accidental to Mindful Minimalism

“…a host of fictional families and individuals whose fake virtual smiles and lifestyles were contrived to make me dissatisfied with my own”

A limited budget forced me to keep my inner shopaholic under control, but I was frustrated and exhausted from coveting the shoes, purses, dresses, jewelry, smiles, cars, houses, kitchen gadgets, laundry detergents, vacations, medications, and oodles of doo-dads owned by my real neighbors, who always seemed better off than I was, and by a host of fictional families and individuals whose fake virtual smiles and lifestyles were contrived to make me dissatisfied with my own. I was an accidental minimalist, but it gave me no peace of mind. I bought the lie that if I worked hard, I could someday ditch my accidental minimalism and catch up with the real and virtual Joneses.

I spent twenty years of my early adulthood in Guadalajara, Mexico. A failing Mexican economy and a faltering marriage motivated me to move with my teenage children back to my home country, where I tried in vain to console myself with the merchandise that was more readily available than it had been in Mexico. A strong inkling that the road to happiness might not be paved with more manufactured “stuff” came when, after roughly twenty-five years of coveting and shopping in my home country, I decided to retire and move back to Mexico.

As I emptied my one-bedroom apartment in Sherman, Texas, along with the garage space I had rented to store my overflow stuff, the donation bins of Goodwill Industries swelled with my discarded goods for several weeks, and so did the dumpsters at my apartment building. I threw away the bride-and-groom cake topper from my first wedding cake. By that time, I had been divorced from the groom for twenty-five years. I trashed Hallmark cards from people I no longer remembered and threw away my mom’s funeral memorabilia because my sad memories came unbidden, needing no reminders.

After a month of hard and sweaty labor, I stuffed a 50-square-foot storage unit with the stuff I couldn’t bring myself to discard. In the ten years since, that stuff was culled and curated, sorted and re-sorted so the storage building was no longer stuffed, but I paid about 800 dollars a year to store things I didn’t use—things that, if sold at highest market value, probably wouldn’t be worth even 500 dollars. You see the problem.

Meanwhile, I binge-watched “Hoarders,” and thought with horror, “There but for the grace of God am I.” My potential heirs already owned higher-quality useful items than the ones I was keeping for them because “they might be useful someday,” and they wouldn’t even know what the memorabilia objects were, much less have any desire to hang on to them.

Minimalism has been practiced accidentally for a long time with names like “thrift” and “good housekeeping.” In this age of consumerism, excess, waste, and chaos, it has been revived as “minimalism.” Like many other good ideas, it gained impetus in its extreme and radical form because extreme and radical get attention. Like many other good ideas, it is most useful when applied with moderation and common sense.

Dave Bruno came up with the idea of limiting his possessions to 100 objects. Marie Kondo thinks that 30 books are enough. Tiny house fans are in a race to see how much tinier their dwellings can be. Extremists like Bruno and Condo challenge our customary ways of thinking, but obsession and fanaticism are not life-enhancing. Good ideas taken to extremes are abused, burnt out, and eventually discarded, resulting in many proverbial babies thrown out with their proverbial bath water. However, life can be improved by paying attention to the truth in what the extremists say and do.

One hundred objects are probably not enough to make most of us comfortable, much less contented. (Neither is it likely we have gone to the opposite extreme of hoarders who have no space to walk, rest, or sit down to eat in their 2,500-plus square foot houses.) A tiny house with a composting toilet is not really my idea of freedom or paradise, but neither is a high-upkeep twelve-bedroom, fifteen-bathroom mansion that requires me to be a human resources manager of the staff required just to keep it clean.

It took some extreme Minimalist thinking to set me on my journey toward a better way to live. I have made progress, but I still have a long way to go. I am not aiming for 100 objects, but Dave Bruno has shown me that I can probably get along with fewer than 100,000. I don’t even want to follow Marie Kondo’s 30-book guideline, but she has convinced me that I don’t have to emulate The Library of Congress or even Ye Olde Used Booke Shoppe. I don’t really want to move into an old school bus, but I have learned a lot of space-saving tricks from people who have, and I have started thinking about what kinds of spaces are inviting and happy-making for me. I think composting toilets are ecologically a great idea, and I admire the people who have committed to them, but I am not ready to give up the water flush. Here are a few things I have learned so far from Mindful Minimalism:

STOP SHOPPING. By “shopping,” I mean wandering through stores looking for things to tempt me. As a rule, I buy something only if I have decided to buy it before I leave my house, then I comparison shop for the best value.

BE GRATEFUL. Marie Kondo recommends verbally thanking an item for its service before discarding it. I have to admit, that feels a little awkward, but I like the thought. I am not rejecting the object but dismissing it. When I start to covet some new doo-dad, I look around at the doo-dads I already have, and give thanks for them.

MINIMALISM IS A WAY TO TRAVEL, NOT A DESTINATION. My house will probably never look like the dream house in my head. Those houses so carefully staged for magazine photos or for a reveal by Chip and Joanna Gaines of “Fixer-Upper” will never look that good again, and my house will never look like Pinterest pictures because PEOPLE LIVE IN MY HOUSE, and people living life can be messy.

FOCUS ON WHAT TO KEEP MORE THAN WHAT TO THROW AWAY. I ask myself why I am keeping something and answer as honestly as I can. If I think I should discard or donate it but I find it hard, I put it in a box labeled “DONATE” or “DISCARD.” When I’ve lived without those things for awhile and haven’t missed them, it’s easier to take them to appropriate places. If I decide to keep something, I give it a place, and store it so that I know I have it and will be able to find it when I want to use it.

DO SMALL THINGS EVERY DAY. If I can’t spend six hours putting my closet in order, I can spend six minutes, or even one minute, or just take care of one thing that is bothering me.

LIFE IS A WORK IN PROGRESS AND I’LL NEVER GET CAUGHT UP. I rid my mind of the fantasy of getting “caught up.” I’m learning to be contented and grateful every day and to do more things that really matter instead of trying to get “caught up.”

STOP TELLING MYSELF I HAVE TO DO THINGS AND DECIDE WHICH THINGS I WANT TO DO. I may decide I want to do some things that are not especially fun, like washing dishes, so that I can enjoy other things, like eating a nice meal from clean dishes.

… I paid about 800 dollars a year to hold on to things that, if sold at highest market value, probably wouldn’t bring even 500 dollars.

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