Reboot the mission

Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for – in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it. ~Ellen Goodman

Many times lately, I’ve found myself sitting in traffic on the way to and from work, thinking about what my life would have been like if I’d discovered minimalism ten years ago. I have to laugh at the absurdity of it all. I decided to go to school when I was 25, years later than most of my friends. I’d been working in libraries since the day I turned 14, and LOVED my job, but I knew that I would never make enough money to get by unless I got a degree.

At the time, I was very ambitious…freshly divorced from a man who was adamantly opposed to my being successful at anything outside of the kitchen, I wanted to go all the way. I wanted to get my bachelor’s in technology, then go on to Simmons for my Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) degree. This would be the safest way to stay relevant in an age when libraries are becoming increasingly under-appreciated. I was hoping to follow in the footsteps of some of my colleagues who had worked tirelessly to reinvigorate the image of the public library and promote its relevance in today’s world by using the same technologies that were supposedly rendering us a thing of the past.

I began my education at ITT in June 2007. I was a good student, and was selected for an internship with a government agency in Boston. I worked at their help desk, answering phones, and responding to a variety of complaints (usually, I just told the user to reboot). For 8 months, I worked 60+ hours between my library job and my internship, on top of a full-time course-load at ITT. I was burnt out. Just when I was about to completely unravel, I received full-time job offers from both my employers simultaneously. I had to choose between a job that I loved, and one that I knew would guarantee my financial security.

I chose the money. My heart wanted to stay at my beloved library, with my wonderful patrons and co-workers who were like family to me. But, my brain knew that my student loans hung above me like an ominous raincloud, just waiting for their opportunity to crush my American dreams. I began working in Boston full-time, though I was still an intern. I received my associate’s degree, then continued on with the bachelor’s Information Security program. And then, the government imposed a hiring freeze. I was next in line for a permanent position, but found myself facing possible unemployment once I graduated, as one has to be in school to maintain internship eligibility.

Somewhat miraculously, one of the telecom contractors was retiring about that time, and they asked if I would be willing to replace him. It would mean going “to the dark side”…contractors are treated as second-class citizens in federal buildings, receive little to no benefits, and there’s pretty much no going back. But, I nearly doubled my salary. Once again, I sold my soul to get more money. In my mind, I was doing the right thing for my future.

Today, I’m making more money than I ever thought I would. But those pesky student loans came due, like clockwork, 6 months after I graduated. Since I have to drive to work (my company pays for parking, but not public transportation), I had to get a reliable car. Between student loans, car payments, and hundreds of dollars a month in gas, I find myself feeling more broke than ever before.

Was any of this necessary? Couldn’t I have lived more simply, and continued doing what I love? Would I have been happier? Have I wasted the last 7 years of my life chasing someone else’s idea of “success”? These questions torture me daily. At this point, it’s futile…I have to make peace with the decisions I made years ago. And I firmly believe that all of the choices we make – big or small – determine the course of our lives. From meeting my wonderful husband, to being able to make that trip to Sweden, there is definitely some good that has come from my decisions. Would I do it differently if I had the chance? Absolutely.

For now, I will look at my job as a means to an end. The bills will all be paid off in time, and that will enable us to live more freely. And the more simply we live now, the sooner that day will come. This whole epiphany has only strengthened my resolve to pare down my possessions and my lifestyle. I would be just as happy with a meal at home and a walk on the beach as I would eating out at a fancy restaurant, if not more so. And I really, REALLY don’t need another pair of shoes. Much as I want them. Making these small sacrifices daily will make a big difference over time.

It’s time to reboot!

Traveling light

He who would travel happily must travel light. ~Antoine de St. Exupery

A few days ago, I switched to a much smaller handbag. It has been working out incredibly well. It’s so light, yet I’ve got everything I need in there. It got me to thinking about how I might apply some of the things I’ve learned when packing my bags for our trip to Sweden in a couple of months. My husband and I have done well the past few times we’ve taken plane trips, and have avoided checking baggage altogether. This has saved us not only money, but also precious vacation time that we would have spent waiting for our bags to appear (and worrying that they might not appear at all).

I would love to continue this practice when we head to Europe, especially since we will be stopping over in Zurich and that will only increase the odds of our belongings not making it to our destination safely. I realize, however, that a two-week trip to Sweden is a bit tougher to pack for than a 5-day stint in Aruba, or so one would likely believe. For Aruba, I packed mainly swimsuits and sundresses, some shorts, t-shirts, sandals, and one pair of jeans. What more could you possibly need for a beautiful Caribbean getaway?

Fortunately, we have a few things going for us that may help us to pack less than we normally would. For one, we will be going during midsummer, when the days are longest and the weather will be pretty nice. We don’t have to worry about bundling up for an icy cold Scandinavian winter. Also, we will be staying with family, so we will likely have some access to washing machines when the need is dire. Staying with family also means I might be able to borrow an item or two of clothing should an occasion arise that I didn’t adequately plan for, though I’m hoping I can make do with what I have.

I figure the earlier I start planning, the less likely I am to over-pack at the last minute, when I’m prone to panicking about leaving something vital at home. I’ve never been one to write up packing lists or really think too hard about what items truly deserve a spot in my suitcase, but perhaps it’s time I started.

Right off the top of my head, I know I’m going to bring the following:

  • White sundresses (one short, one full-length)
  • A couple of my favorite super-thin, soft T-shirts
  • A couple tank tops
  • One pair of jeans
  • One or two pairs of shorts
  • Yoga pants
  • A long linen skirt
  • A cardigan or thin sweater
  • One pair of sandals
  • One pair of walking shoes

We are planning on trying to visit a Crossfit box in Stockholm while we’re there, so I’ll need to bring at least one workout-appropriate outfit. If I bring my Chucks, those will do fine for that, and for wearing when we’re out and about. All of that should fit comfortably in a carry-on sized suitcase. I will probably bring some very basic toiletries, toothbrush, hairbrush, and makeup (thank goodness for my travel-friendly Bare Minerals!), but will be leaving out stuff like shampoo, body wash, and moisturizers…these are things I can pick up easily and cheaply once we arrive. I won’t be bringing a blow drier, especially since I’d need a special adapter to use it overseas. Besides, I can’t even imagine spending an hour blowing hot air at my head when I could be enjoying my vacation!

I’m really looking forward to visiting my family, and meeting some of them for the first time. It’s been 18 years since my last trip to Sweden, and I have been trying to get back there for a very long time. I can’t wait to enjoy all of the simple pleasures my mother’s home country has to offer…Swedes really have the minimalist thing down, and I intend to absorb as much as I can while I’m there. Perhaps, instead of souvenirs, I will return home with a better understanding of what I really need in order to live a happy life.

With mom in Dalarna.

Mom and me in Dalarna. Simpler times, for sure!

Bag lady

The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak. ~Hans Hofmann

I have to give myself just a little bit of a break here, because I truly am not that big of a purse girl, despite my lifelong obsession with shoes. If I could apply the same principles I use when selecting a handbag to every other part of my life, I would have been a minimalist of the highest order a long time ago. I am extremely discriminating when it comes to buying bags. The bag needs to be high quality – usually leather – and must go with the majority of my clothes. It can’t have crazy logos all over it, and it must only have one strap, since any bag with two will slip right off my shoulder. It has to be large enough to hold the “essentials” (hair brush, wallet, makeup, keys, etc.), but not so large that it will be cumbersome to carry (since I realize fully that no matter how large it is, I will fill it to capacity).

I generally buy a new handbag about every 3-4 years. For a girl who is barely in her thirties, I think that shows quite a bit of restraint. I consider handbags to be a long-term investment – something that I’m willing to spend a few hundred dollars on, as long as it meets ALL the criteria. In the end, I think the cost-per-use is pretty reasonable, even if I purchase something high-end. The bag that I’ve owned and (mostly) loved for the past 4 years has been my black leather Dooney and Bourke hobo. It was the perfect size and color, and was suitable for almost any occasion. Unfortunately, it was also a catch-all, and could also be considered by some to be a deadly weapon.

Handbag, or deadly weapon?

Bonus: handbag doubles as wrecking ball.

I have nearly screamed in frustration when trying to find my car keys, which always manage to shimmy themselves to the very bottom of the bag, underneath all of the other items that I deemed too important to go without for even just a few hours. Most of the time, wading through receipts, gum wrappers, hair ties, hand sanitizer, and nail polish produces nothing, and so I slam my bag down, inadvertently scraping the hood of my car with the metal clasp, yanking out as many items as necessary before seeing the glint of those familiar keys…and only then, does my heart rate return to normal. The whole situation has become a source of stress for me, and so I decided to do something about it.

I have a pretty fabric wristlet that I received as a gift from the woman I purchased all my bridesmaids’ wristlets from (check her Etsy shop out – such cool stuff!). I love it, but haven’t used it very often since it’s so much smaller than what I’m used to. I never thought I could fit everything I needed into it. But yesterday, I decided to try. I pulled all of the stuff out of my purse that I knew I truly couldn’t live without. Cash, phone, keys, chapstick, one hair tie, and gum. To my amazement, my hairbrush actually fit, too. I really don’t need anything else! It was so nice to not have to lug my heavy bag around when we went out to dinner. And I know that when I return to my car in the parking garage tomorrow after work, I won’t be panicking looking for my keys. And no more scratches on my car!

I might not match everything in your closet, but I'm fabulous.

I might not match everything in your closet, but I’m fabulous.

Bumps in the road.

The intention of voluntary simplicity is not to dogmatically live with less. It’s a more demanding intention of living with balance. This is a middle way that moves between the extremes of poverty and indulgence. ~Duane Elgin

I’ve only just begun this minimalist journey, but have already encountered a number of roadblocks. It’s a bit discouraging, but I’m doing my best to get past these and forge ahead, since I’m sure my situation is not that unique. Judging by my last couple of posts, it’s obvious that I have been focusing largely on my wardrobe as a starting place to eliminate excess belongings. This just made sense, since clothes have been a major issue for me for as long as I can recall. Unfortunately, as cathartic as it has been to get rid of ill-fitting, unflattering, worn-out clothes, I am also coming to the realization that I have very few items that fit me well.

I started doing CrossFit late last summer. CrossFit is an exercise program focused on strength and conditioning, and their prescription for fitness is  “constantly varied, high intensity, functional movement”. On their Getting Started page, they state: “We are a ‘minimalist program’ and this is reflected by the functionality and limited number of our exercises and the simplicity of the equipment we use compared to most commercial gyms.” How ironic that I would have chosen this particular program over all others, just months before having a minimalist epiphany.

Since I started CrossFit, I have noticed some changes in how my clothes fit. What were once tiny chicken legs can now barely squeeze into my skinny jeans, since my thighs have grown in size from so many squats. I have yet other pairs that used to be snug, but are now sagging due to sitting much lower on my shrinking waist. Sweaters and other long-sleeved shirts are becoming increasingly tight around my upper arms. While I welcome these changes, for someone who is trying to avoid purchasing new things, they are making this minimalist lifestyle a bit difficult. I have one pair of jeans that fit relatively well, though only when fresh out of the dryer. I live in jeans on the weekends (don’t we all?), so this is a sad state of affairs. I fear that I may have to give in and purchase a new pair.

Moving into a new apartment necessitated picking up a couple of items. Our dilapidated TV stand, which we were only able to use for the past two years thanks to some reinforcement from my handyman father-in-law, did not survive the journey and so a more robust one was purchased from IKEA. Our couch (also from IKEA) was torn to shreds by our mischievous furball, Seamus, so I purchased a new set of covers for it. The new TV stand is solid wood, and I know we will use it for many years to come. The new couch cover, while certainly not cheap, was a far better deal than replacing the couch altogether, and since one of our main wishes was to have an apartment large enough to have company, I wanted the living room to be somewhat presentable.

Sleepy Pixie

Pixie approves of the new cover.

Naughty boy

Seamus isn’t sold on his new “scratch lounge”…

I feel that these purchases fall under the umbrella of “minsumerism”…don’t mindlessly consume; buy only what you need. “Need” is certainly a subjective term, and I think each individual needs to determine for themselves what is necessary, and what is excessive. This paring-down of possessions is an ongoing process for me, and I think that as time goes on, I will be able to part with more items and learn to live more simply in many other areas of life.

The clothes conundrum

Owning less is far more beneficial than organizing more.
~Joshua Becker, http://www.becomingminimalist.com

I can hardly remember a time when I did not own far too many clothes. My closets and drawers have always been notoriously cluttered and overstuffed. As soon as I started making my own money, the majority of it was spent on expanding my wardrobe.

As a teenager, I remember not being able to see a square inch of carpet in my bedroom because of all the clothes strewn about. My friend Amy, a neat freak, would occasionally come over and clean my room, sometimes when I was sleeping, and I would wake up and be shocked to find everything put away (though it would take me an hour to find anything).

Shirts in a row

Pinterest is a great tool for enabling clothes hoarders.

I have had varying degrees of success with organizing my wardrobe, utilizing shoe racks, hanging shelves, and some ingenious hacks like the one above, which I found on Pinterest. All that has been accomplished by such tricks is to create more space to fill with new clothes. My dream was always to have a huge, beautiful walk-in closet where I could have room for everything I ever wanted. I realize now that this would be a serious mistake. I can only imagine the epic shopping sprees that would result from having so much room.

Now, I yearn for the simple, sparse closet filled with only those treasured pieces that I will want to wear for the next 30 years. We recently moved into a much larger apartment with loads of closet space, and I am resisting the urge to over-organize and utilize every square foot of it. Instead, I am going through all of my clothes and ruthlessly purging items that I haven’t been wearing, even if they are fairly new.

Somewhere along the line, I picked up a habit of purchasing brightly-colored tops that never get worn because they go so poorly with my Irish coloring. It was difficult, but I decided to part with these. Just because something is my husband’s favorite color (orange), or seems like a cheery contrast to the drab weather we’ve been having, does not mean I need to buy it. I can now say with confidence that orange is not my color.

Instead, I am trying to focus on the items that I wear constantly – what do they have in common? What will I never tire of? I think I could be pretty content with just a few pairs of really great jeans, tops in neutral, earthy tones, plain white T-shirts, and sweaters and comfy blazers. I learned long ago that anything that requires special laundering is a no-go. Almost all of my clothes are cotton (or a cotton blend), which makes life so much easier. I am lucky to have a husband who does laundry quite frequently, and I don’t expect him to read all those labels. Besides, cotton clothes just feel better!

Becoming a minimalist does not mean that you can never purchase anything new, ever again. I think that with this lifestyle, there is a better focus on quality over quantity – it is preferable to own a few, very nice things, than to be buried by mediocre items that only make it harder to find that one shirt you are looking for (despite having worn it just a few days ago). Ditch the deadweight in your closet, and have a couple of those shirts, instead.

When I purchase something new these days, I go home and fill a bag of clothes for donation. I’ve purged probably a dozen huge black trash bags filled with clothes since I began this process. It is refreshing to see my closet’s contents begin to reflect my own style (classic, casual, sometimes a little quirky), as opposed to what was on sale at Marshalls that day. As a bonus, getting ready in the morning has become a breeze.

This weekend, I plan to attack the shoe pile…this one’s going to be tough.

So much stuff.

You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you.
~Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Seamus the cat

My ever-helpful moving buddy, Seamus.

I move quite frequently. On more than a dozen occasions since I left high school, I have found myself packing up all my belongings and hauling them off to my latest destination. With each move, the amount of things to pack into boxes increased dramatically. Exponentially, even.

Some of the moves were impulsive ones, leaving me geographically isolated from family and friends. When I wasn’t getting lost in a cornfield somewhere (one of my favorite pastimes, up until the tornado incident…storm-chaser material, I am not!), I filled my free time with solo shopping trips, justifying the expense by telling myself I deserved to be surrounded by things that I liked. I was a hard-working, self-sufficient, independent gal. I moved out to Indiana in a hatchback Mitsubishi, and moved back in a U-Haul. I should have stuck to the cornfields.

Finding places for all my things got trickier as time went on. Unlike Indiana real estate, square footage in Massachusetts comes at a premium, and in order to move into my last residence in our beautiful hometown of Rockport, I needed to rent a storage unit to house many of these things for the two years we were there. The unit was essentially a large, expensive, off-site closet. My then-fiance (now husband) was in the Army and deployed at the time, so my brother very kindly hired me a moving company, who loaded up all of my furniture and boxes and moved them into our tiny new apartment, and then brought the overflow to the storage unit.

I envisioned trekking there to retrieve items at least a couple times a month, but for nearly two years, the unit was barely disturbed. I never knew I had so much unnecessary stuff – stuff that I wouldn’t realize was missing if it suddenly disappeared forever.

Cat in a box

What is wrong with this picture?

In the photo above, you see some of the items that were deemed “essential”…things that were “too good” for the storage unit. These include a jump rope (despite us having no yard and living in a second-floor apartment with low ceilings), an ornamental cross (I’m agnostic), and an entire set of Encyclopædia Britannica from the 90s that I snagged from my old library simply because Volume 8’s spine reads “Menage – Ottawa”. Come on, that’s hilarious.

I’m glad to say that after my most recent purge, the only items that remain in my care are the bookshelf, Seamus, and Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 8. My prized possession.

I guess what I’ve learned from all of this is that the things that matter to you now might not matter at all a couple of years down the road. Love for material objects is fleeting. I wish I knew, when I held something in my hand, whether I would still love it as much in ten years. I am going to try to ask myself that about everything I want to purchase from now on, before I get in the checkout line.