Minimalism and my Discontents

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Many, many years ago, way before Marie Kondo came around, someone recommended Karen Kingston’s Feng Shui against clutter. I bought it, and still love it. I regularly use it to ask myself whether stuff is weighing me down or not. I have Marie Kondo’s book as well, but quite frankly, I find it a bit judgmental. Whenever I read the book, I feel like a failure for having stuff. Then I watched Ali Wong’s amazing stand up, “Baby Cobra”, where she talks about her mother’s experience of fleeing her home, and randomly keeping stuff in her house. Of course, it is funny when she asks her mother how and why exactly the manual for a Texas instruments calculator is going to help her if she ever has to flee the country, and it reminded me of my grandparents, and how my grandfather kept old church news from 1989.

Enter Minimalism. Does item x bring me joy? Does its energy weigh me down, or is the chi trapped in the room? If so, get rid of it. Box it for a while some say, then get rid of it.

Simplicity. Clarity. Think of what you need, not what you want. What could be wrong with it?

To begin with, in a strange way, minimalism is the ultimate expression of consumerism. You can get rid of stuff, because should you need it again one day, you can just buy it again. You can talk about the value of memories over stuff, because you can afford to go on trips or to restaurants or concerts to make these memories. Because you have the choice. You don’t hear homeless people or refugees talk about how they love their freedom, right?

A few years ago, my grandparents had a fire in their house. Even though nobody got hurt, it was an incredibly stressful experience for them, and to a much lesser extent for the entire family. There was a lot of smoke damage, and the items in the house needed to be professionally cleaned while the house was renovated. So my grandparents, together with my parents, aunts, uncles and cousins had to go through the house and look through everything that they had and decide what would be valuable enough to get sent off to be cleaned. My grandparents have a huge house, and have lived in their house since 1954, when my grandfather, together with his brother built it. I got many exasperated calls in which my mother told me about the amount of stuff my grandparents owned.

Nine months later, the house was finally ready to move in again, and their stuff came back. I happened to be in Germany, so my mum and I drove up and helped to unpack boxes, and clean stuff again before it was put back, because it was not up to my grandmother’s standards (“who knows where this stuff has been?”). In one afternoon, I hand washed not one, not two, but four full sets of coffee services (12 cups, saucers, plates is one set). Of course, I knew the white with the gold rim cups that was the set that came out on birthdays and holidays, but the others I had never even seen. I wondered whether they were from my great-grandma. Then my grandmother lifted the mystery: One she bought in Hungary, on their first vacation after the war. It was an impulse purchase, something she had never done before, because money had always been tight. And by tight I mean tight. So tight that when everyone had a washing machine, my grandmother still washed the family’s clothes by hand, long into the 1950’s (during the so-called Wirtschaftswunder time), because my grandparents were afraid to go into debt. Growing up during WWII, my grandma would tell me about how resourceful her mother was, how one day, she managed to beat the skim milk they got so long that it resembled whipped cream.

Almost everything my grandmother owned, I realized, from her four sets of coffee services, to her coats, to was a way to tell her traumatic memories, that she was in a better place now. If I told her that all this stuff would weigh her down, she’d probably tell me, “that was the point.”

Fast forward many years, me and my partner in our first place together in Indianapolis. We knew it was only for two years, and the smart, pragmatic thing to do, would be to live simply, don’t buy too much furniture, not get attached. We did the opposite. This was our first place, we wanted the “us” that had existed for a long time, but finally could live together, to also physically manifest. We also lived far away from our family and friends, so having a home we liked was important to us. At that time, we had no idea where we’d end up, where I would find a job next, so settling in, buying furniture, painting the walls, and getting stuff was a way to anchor our lives. I wanted to be weighed down by stuff, because career wise, health wise, I had little control over my life.

Finally, clothes. Everyone with IBD will have boxes of clothes that don’t fit them at the moment. Because experience tell us the next flare will come again, we don’t get rid of them. Many people, because they don’t have the money to buy new clothes, and many people, because their clothes provide them comfort during a time of flare. Likewise, most of us keep medications handy, because again, the next flare may be there, and depending on the situation, a doctor may not be able to see us right away. It’s been three years that my stomach wound has healed, but I still have the box with all the wound care essentials. I will ultimately donate the items, but for now, the box stays where it is at.

Of course, the minimalist argument is, that if you are secure in yourself, you don’t need all of these things. Having less, the minimalist narrative tells you, will free you, and make you receptive to the world, your relationships, etc. And to a certain extent, I agree. I work better if my desk isn’t crazy messy. I sleep better if my bedroom isn’t full of junk (or as a friend of mine once said “a bedroom is for sleeping and f****ing”- I’d probably add reading). Thinking about our relationship to the material is important, and we all can benefit from asking ourselves “Do I really need this in my life?” or “Will this item enrich my life?” before we buy the next thing. Don’t let the stuff take over.

However, declaring everyone who clings to things to ground them insecure, shifts the blame from structural problems to the personal. My grandmother being traumatized by poverty and growing up during a war is not something she caused in any way. Me not knowing where I’d end up was not me being indecisive but the ruthless and over-saturated academic job market. IBD patients not wanting to get rid of clothes that don’t fit anymore, and keeping old medications is not being insecure, it is living with a disease that is being “managed” but not cured, in a less than optimal health system.

Minimalism as I said earlier then feels like a weird expression of late-phase capitalism. In a world in which the divide between rich and poor is bigger than ever, boasting that you own the bare minimum has become a sign of being rich.

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