Before I ever learned that ‘minimalist’ referred to a lifestyle as well as a design principle, I started hearing about the trend of taking a complete inventory of one’s personal belongings. There seems to be a sort of contest among avowed minimalists as to who can detach from the most things. Surely a monk who owns nothing but a yellow robe and a begging bowl is the all-time winner of this game? (Although the last time I saw a yellow-robed monk, he had a tote bag with a 16-oz plastic bottle of Coke peeking out…)
I have tried taking my own inventory of personal items. It didn’t take long before I realized I should work out a list of must-haves, sort of like the accessories that are stapled to the inside of the display box of a new doll. It’s the middle-aged suburban writer model! She comes with a laptop bag, Scrabble board, battered notebook, parrot carrier, ukulele, and four hula hoops. Wait, that’s the custom version.
What I found during my attempt to devise a minimalist inventory checklist was that everyone who has done this… has cheated! The main cheat is to consider an entire category of objects as a single object, namely: BOOKS. You have got to be kidding me. Books are the heaviest and bulkiest aside from furniture! Of course books count as single items! The other pitfall is CLOTHING. Okay, no. I work with hoarding and compulsive acquisition, and I have only ever had one single client who was an exception to the rule that Clothes Will Take Over All Available Space and Then Some. There is a subcategory of minimalist inventories, and that is the cult of the capsule wardrobe. If they can do it, anyone can. If clothing, shoes, coats, and accessories don’t count as separate, individual items, then there is really no point to the exercise of trying to take the inventory in the first place.
I think I’ve hit on the problem here. I look at my belongings in the context of having to pack, move, and unpack them on a regular basis. Most of the minimalist thought leaders exclude shared or household items, such as furniture, linens, and housewares. That’s legit: it can be a real minefield when one person in a household becomes enamored of minimalism and tries to drag everyone else into it without the proper emotional adjustment period. From a more nomadic perspective, every toothpick, safety pin, and spare button has to count, because all of it has to be tracked, packed, and stacked.
I’ll never win the minimalist inventory game. My “go bag” alone has a few dozen items in it. My backpacking gear fits in a plastic tub, but it also consists of dozens of separate things. I’m not counting my sewing box as “one item” because, well, where does it stop? Do we just limit ourselves to, say, 100 categories? Do we then merge categories to capture everything? How about just calling it “MY STUFF” and leaving it in the singular?
My household consists of my husband, a dog, and a parrot. Hubby is better at minimalism than I am in some ways; I have seen him pack his entire work wardrobe into a single suitcase for a three-week international business trip. My minimalist project makes sense to him, and it supports his career development. We’re in it together. We have to be, as we’ve been married 6 years and we’ve already moved together 5 times. Our focus has been more on downsizing furniture and workout equipment – the big stuff. There is a base level of material goods that makes a comfortable home. We’re still in the process of unpacking from our latest move, and it is astonishing how much space is taken up by the blankets, pillows, soup pots, towels, mops, brooms, and hangers. Even such mundane items as a laundry basket and a dish rack start to add bulk and numbers quickly.
What counts? What doesn’t count? There are a lot of standard household items that we don’t have. We don’t have a barbecue, a roasting pan, a recliner, a wine rack, a second vehicle, a gaming system, holiday decorations, a stereo, a collection of CDs, or, well, actually we don’t even have a couch right now. Many of our ‘things’ are virtual. Do they count? Does it somehow not count that I have a couple dozen e-books, three movies, and hours of podcasts stored on my phone? How about all those digital photos? We are now entering a twilit world where we can be emotionally involved with things that aren’t there, whilst surrounded by physical things we don’t even notice anymore. My response to this has been to try to be more portable.
We are now living in a 728 square foot house that was built in 1939. We love it. It doesn’t feel small at all, perhaps because the ceilings are maybe a foot higher and the ratio of window to wall is higher, too. This place is 53% of the size of our last house. We’re not going to have to get rid of 47% of our stuff, though. The closet rod is 40” long – that’s THREE FEET FOUR INCHES - and all my existing clothes (and two hanging shoe racks) fit on it. We were able to contemplate moving here because we realized that we had a lot of wasted space. Each time we’ve moved, we’ve gotten rid of a certain amount of stuff. Either we had too many redundant spatulas or whatever, a piece of furniture wouldn’t fit the appropriate room, the colors were off, or we realized that time had gone by and we hadn’t been using it. Every time we cull items, we think about our desire to eventually live and work overseas for a few years, which means most of the basic housewares are completely expendable. All our media will eventually be digitized, from books, music, and movies to our few remaining binders and handwritten notes. The important things aren’t things at all. What we want to bring is our marriage, our pets, and our lifestyle.
The core of minimalism is to focus on what is most important in life. We are too prone as a society to focus on shopping and interacting with STUFF. Counting every item in the house is a great way to return our focus to STUFF instead of our loved ones, our values, and living our purpose. What I want to be thinking about are enduring topics like: Can I make my husband belly-laugh today? Can I teach my parrot to whistle any part of the Harry Potter theme? Can my dog learn to jump rope? The idea is to live life. We want to break our cultural addiction to debt, driving, staring at screens, overeating, under-sleeping, and clutter. We want to live within our means. We want to have the strongest relationships possible with all the people we care about. We want to find out just how big life can get. There needs to be room for it. We make space by turning away from material things and turning toward one another.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.