Saturday, October 9, 2010

"And When You're Living in America [...] You're What You Own"

I've been reading a lot of minimalist blogs and articles and stuff lately (read enough about natural food and eating and about being environmentally responsible and sustainable, and you'll hit minimalism sooner or later), so I've gotten inspired (and/or the crazy hippie bug has infected me full force). Now, a lot of people are doing challenges like living with fewer than 100 personal items, going three months wearing only 33 items of clothing, or wearing only 6 items of clothing for a month. I'm not going to pretend I even want to do anything that drastic.

Well, OK, the clothes ones, which I encountered before the 100-Thing Challenge, intrigued me for about two minutes. But see, here's the thing. Doing a one-month experiment where you only wear six items of clothing is interesting and a challenge, yes, but what good does it actually do? You still own everything else you own, you're just not using it. That's exactly the opposite of what I want to do. I'm not hung up on the number of items of clothes I own, but to me, the whole point of a functioning wardrobe is that you wear everything in it on a regular basis. Once you own something, you should definitely use it, and if you're not, then you should get rid of it. (Of course, the people participating in the two clothing challenges may decide at the end to donate all their other clothes—or most of them, at least—having lost their fear of needing something and not having it, in which case that's all well and good.)

So anyway, I have decided to become a minimalist, though I'm sure I'm using the term so loosely most the bloggers I've been reading would barely recognize it. I am bothered by how much stuff I have. Excess stuff sitting around distracts the attention and weighs on the mind if it's visible, but even if I manage to keep all my junk nicely hidden away, it still takes up psychological space. I know it's there. It's like I feel responsible for it, for caring for it and managing it. Plus I still have to cart it around every time I move, which I have done 13 times in the past seven years (counting moves to and from college each year, to Oxford, to Marburg, and my annual moves since). I have to spend a lot of time sorting stuff, picking it up, moving it around, putting it away, etc. So I definitely want to have less stuff—much less stuff. And, as I said, I want everything I have to be something I like having and use regularly. I'm tired of feeling obligated to my stuff. It's entirely irrational. Just because I've owned a thing for six years does not mean its feelings will get hurt if I get rid of it! Just because I paid $50 for a thing does not mean I'm getting my money's worth from simply having it sitting around for two years any more than I would if I just got rid of it. Just because my eccentric aunt gave me a thing does not mean she really thinks it's something that should be a central part of my life (at least I hope that's not her intent or she's much more eccentric than previously thought), and she probably won't give that thing one thought after she gets my thank-you note, so it's pointless feeling obligated to keep it around.

I decided a reasonable but definitely doable challenge would be to get rid of half my stuff. This presents me with a conundrum as well, however, as I definitely don't think just chucking everything into 20 trash bags and putting it out on the curb is a legitimate way of dealing with things. Of course it's easy to just tie things up and cut them out of your life in one fell swoop, but I feel like doing that isn't deliberate enough and just leaves you open to letting more stuff come in to fill its spot. Plus, obviously, it's no more responsible to fill the landfills with your things than to fill your house with your things, so as much as possible, things need to be actually dealt with. So clothes and books and things should obviously be sold or donated, but what about all that stuff? One thing I realized lately is I have a gallon bag full of 3-ounce toiletry bottles from traveling. I have recently found an amazing travel toiletry set, however (the bottles are all like 0.5 and 1 and 1.5 ounces so you can take small amounts of like 12 things instead of 3 ounces of like three products, of which you generally only use a third or half each), so I'm never going to actually use any of these for traveling again. So, yes, I'm going to spend the next month or so using up tiny bottles of shampoo and conditioner and such at what I am sure will feel like an agonizingly slow pace. But this reduces waste, and, perhaps even more importantly, it forces me to be mindful of my purchases, to attend to the lifespan of each, to find a way to release them from my life naturally. I'm guessing (hoping) this will make me less likely to mindlessly acquire new things, since I'm aware of what a pain it is to deal with them. If you buy something knowing that when you're tired of it, you'll just throw it away, then money is pretty much the only impediment to acquisition.

Which brings me to another important topic. Obviously just eliminating half of my possessions won't solve the underlying problems. That's like getting extensive liposuction: great, the fat's all gone, but if you don't change the way you eat and live, it's going to creep back. My hope is that I'm actually undergoing a significant enough change in the way I think about possessions and consumerism and such that I will be able not to simply justify buying tons of new stuff since now I have the space because I did such an amazing job clearing stuff out. To a certain degree, I know this is true. Over the past few years I think I've actually managed to recalibrate my sense of disgust (disgust is the most powerful motivating emotion) so that things like fast food and big hunks of meat and piles of shiny new toys actually vaguely disgust me. This should be very helpful, since if I find mindless consumerism and acquisition disgusting in others or in principle, presumably I will at least think twice about doing such myself. It's an added hurdle, which in this case is to my benefit. However, of course, I am fighting against a quarter-century of some pretty powerful social conditioning and DNA full of pack rat tendencies. So we'll see how that goes.

Anyway: so I'm getting rid of half my stuff. I set January first as my goal date to be done. It's like a special bonus resolution that will have me already feeling good about myself on New Year's and will thus hopefully serve as the impetus to get a move on whatever resolutions I end up making then. This also gives me two and a half months, which I'm hoping will help with the mindfulness part that I mentioned before (I'm pretty sure calm, rational, deliberate culling over time is far superior to one fell swoop, as it has the best chances of actually getting habits started and getting me used to looking at everything from that perspective) as well as give me time to consume things like those travel-sized toiletries and hopefully at least some of my 14 types of hair products. (Note: I use between one and three hair styling products on any given day. In any given month, I probably use four max. But, like everything else in my life, as my tastes change, I just keep the old stuff and acquire new stuff (repeat, repeat), and then I have like five times as much as I actually need.)

So, how am I measuring? Being the kind of obsessive person I am (the challenges mentioned at the beginning really do appeal to exactly my brand of crazy), I'm taking an inventory of every single bit of stuff I own, listing it out, counting it, and then aiming to end up with only half that number by the end of the year. I'm not trying to halve each category of stuff; some categories (papers, random crap in boxes under my bed) should be eliminated almost entirely, while my 430 books are probably going to be lightly pared at best. Why? Because that's the way I want to do it. Because my books make me happy and are a psychological boost while the boxes of junk under my bed are a psychological drag that I constantly feel like I need to deal with.

I spent the last day and half or so (on and off) making my list. I just went clockwise around my room, cataloguing in a Word document all the stuff that was on each surface or in each box or drawer. (I have some stuff in the kitchen, bathroom, and basement, but those were all pretty easy to do.) And yes, being obsessive, I wrote everything down in excruciating detail. A partial list from my kitchen (the least embarrassing segment, I'm sure):
one set measuring cups
two sets measuring spoons
pastry cutter
small silicone mats (2)
electric mixer
white plastic bowl with lid
small springform pan
silicone muffin cups
small cutting board
medium cutting board
scoop cutting board
cookie sheets (2)
large plastic storage containers (2 rectangular, 1 square)
grippy things (3)
veggie scrub brush
kitchen towels (2)
vegetable peelers (1 normal, 1 palm-held)
cheese slicer
can opener
garlic press
plastic bin for compost
toaster oven
food processor
waffle iron
mini George Foreman
The final list was 16 pages long. (Just the one column per page, but still!) And what counted as an item? I wasn't entirely consistent. Each plate, bowl, etc. was counted separately, but "utensils" were one item. Pens and markers were each enumerated, but "file box and files" was one item, "2 xmas boxes I didn't feel like opening" were only one each, and "pile of papers" was an item each time one was encountered. The bag of toiletries previously mentioned was only counted as one item.

Andthe big revealI am the not-so-proud owner of 2,762 and a half items. This was way more than I was expecting. Of course, little thingsor well-organized thingsadd up quickly even though they don't take up a lot of space. For instance, I own 66 and a half pairs of earrings (um, yeah), but they take up about a quarter of the small half-drawer at the top of my chest of drawers. My 430 books fitwith extra room, evenon two Ikea Billy bookcases that take up exactly six square feet of floorspace.

That being said, I was horrified by a lot of categories. For instance: 104 pairs of underwear. What?! And of course I only wear like a third of them on anything approaching a regular basis. Actually, yeah, clothes are most of what appalled me. Seven swimsuits (four of which don't even fit). Twenty-two bras that are too big for me (!!), not counting the ones that fit (of which there is some subsection I actually wear). [I feel the need to defend myself. I have lost a lot of weight, in fits and starts and with fluctuations, over the past two years. So this, like several other areas of my wardrobe, reflects a good three- or four- or five-size range. And bras aren't cheap, so I held on to them in case I gained ten pounds back again or whatever. No need to give things away for free and then spend $100 to replace them in three months! However, this is actually ridiculous (they were in four locations, so I didn't realize I had held onto that many), so I'm getting rid of all but a couple. Plus, holding onto fat clothes is one of those big no-nos if you read dieting articles, because then it's like mental permission to get lazy and creep back up again. I'm not sure I buy that entirely, but whatever, it's a consideration.] Sixty-nine and a half pairs of socks. (Thirty are white tube socks or ankle socks that I actually do wear regularly, and that are actually often the limiting factor in determining when it's laundry time. Fifteen are knee socks, which, yeah, are not. Six are fuzzy house socks, which I'm pretty sure I did not myself purchase a single pair of. And obviously the lone, unmated sock is doing nobody any good.)

Then, on the other hand, are the seeming excesses that I don't think actually are. (There are few of these, by which I basically mean this one.) I own 11 black tank tops, 8 white tank tops, and 6 gray tank tops. (Also 39 others, but that's not the part I'm justifying.) I really do wear almost all of those frequently. The white ones especially are essential to wear under all sorts of less-than-opaque or low-cut tops. I actually have three of the same white tank top because I kept having to fish it out of the hamper because I always needed it again before it got washed.

But yeah, I'm appalled at myself. Thirty percent of my belongings are items of clothing, and that's saying a lot, since I started this mostly concerned with the proliferation of just random junk. If I got rid of all the junk and kept the clothes, they would probably be around half. Ridiculous!

Stay tuned. Over the next two and a half months, I've got to figure out not only which 1,381 items get to leave my life forever but exactly how I'm going to manage that. Also hopefully I'll have some great insights about how not to replace those items with thirteen hundred of their close cousins.

I feel accomplished already, and I haven't actually done anything.

Oh, right. The title is lyrics from "Living in America" from Rent.