In my final semester of college, my phone broke and erased all photographic evidence of my undergrad years. When the Apple Genius Bar employee informed me that all my pictures were gone, I thanked him, then had a panic attack in the shopping mall parking lot. I cried until the windows of my car fogged over with anguish. I bargained, wondering whether I’d give a thousand dollars, five thousand dollars, a fingernail to get them back. I cried the next day too, despite knowing how silly it was to grieve for pixels on a screen. Digital dust worth nothing to everyone except me.
I mourned the symbolism of the photos more than the photos themselves. I mourned not being able to return to my prior states of mind, knowing I’d forget how I felt and what I thought was worthy of being captured and stored. I considered the entirety of my coming-of-age being captured through others’ eyes, slivered and hacksawed and peripheral, and wept.
For a time, I tried to recall the things that only I would know. Don’t forget about eating mangos on the beach. Don’t forget about your sorority sister’s tiny cat gnawing on your toe. Don’t forget about the market visits with your only local friend in Cambodia. Don’t forget about dancing in international nightclubs to Western mega-hits of the 80s. Don’t forget about that textured yellow skirt, and how the San Diego spring air pulsed with possibility, and how you felt falling in love and swearing it wasn’t so.
And then I forgot to stop forgetting, and I kept living. And everything was the same, despite a valuable era of my life existing nowhere except the leaking container of my mind.
When the dust cleared, I realized that I am more than my things. And I am only my things.
Did I lose something irreplaceable or did I retain everything that matters?
It’s a difficult question. But in pondering it, I gained the callousness to pursue minimalism with full intent. It taught me that everything I own is at once, deeply precious, and entirely expendable.
Part of minimalism’s allure is the offer of a metaphorical reset. We strip ourselves of everything inessential, and in the resulting white space, our capacity to dream and rest and play expands. This is especially compelling when we are bogged down by the miasma of life - our past selves, modern mania, obligation, the pressure to succeed, and the fear of being left out or behind.
Ironically, for many people, the entryway into minimalism is through escape.
Minimalism distanced me from several harmful phenomena. It’d be easy to write about my waning interest in fast fashion or how quickly you can clean a sparsely furnished home.
It’s less easy for me to admit that my aversion to capitalism and consumer culture isn’t solely based on a moral argument. In truth, I feign disinterest because I’m deeply insecure about my likelihood of failing in both.
I often think about how my generation will be the first to have less financial success than our parents’ generation. I also think about how with all my advantages (a college degree, mental wellness, able body), I have no excuse to let that happen to me. Living in the Bay Area exposed me to people my age making stupid amounts of tech money. I think I could get there too if I worked a little harder and suffered a little more. But idealizing high-paying careers and their corresponding lifestyles is a slippery slope because it means believing that what I have now is inferior. It demeans the work that I currently do and have done and will likely do for the rest of my life - things like teaching and event planning and government paperwork.
Minimalism is a refutation of that idea. Within its framework, the value of “success” shrinks. Instead, things like free time, being of service, and adaptability grow in importance. Minimalism asks me to prioritize my happiness when making decisions, and in doing so, I find peace with the circumstances I chose for myself.
One such circumstance is that as time goes on, I have fewer and fewer friends. I’ve never had many friends to begin with. I’ve often been the first to be excluded and the last to be added. I think I’ve always been a little out of the loop. I don’t wear the right clothes, or listen to the right music, or watch the right TV shows. I don’t drink alcohol or support a sports team, which excludes me from the two most convenient gateways to social interaction. I’m not attractive enough to be in pictures, I’m not fun enough to kick back with, I’m not talented enough to be memorable.
I’m bad at being a consumer. I haven’t learned enough about anything to be accepted as a member of the community surrounding it.
Because my interests revolve around the commonplace things all humans do - eating, conversing, moving my body, wandering around and seeing the world - they hardly pass as interests at all. I don’t have many strong convictions about media or products that make me instantly relatable. I don’t come across as very complex or learned. I’m just a girl.
Sometimes, I try to fix it. Embarrassingly, I select movies to watch based on their cultural significance. I listen to Pitchfork’s “Best New Music '' playlist to understand what is considered good. Insert another confession that makes me sound like a robot learning to be human here.
I have a memory from the third grade. For whatever reason, my teacher assumed that I really liked pink. I don’t remember having any attachment to pink. The grades prior, my favorite color was turquoise because I was proud of being able to spell it. But I never corrected my teacher. In fact, I leaned into it. I started wearing pink every single day so that my classmates could point it out. It became my thing. Britney likes pink! I bought a pig-shaped jibbitz for my Crocs so that I would always have something pink on my person. I remember understanding, even as an eight-year-old, that you can become someone else with just a few items.
As an adult, the items are a little bigger. A well-designed apartment, a coveted job, flashy trips to metropolitan cities.
An acquaintance once told me that they could never tell if I was having fun or not. It was a little funny and a little hurtful. But I appreciate the honesty of their observation because it’s telling. I was chasing experiences that I thought would make me likable, even when they were substanceless and short-lived.
Consumer culture makes me focus on what I lack. It tells me that I am stupid and poor and ugly, even though I know none of those are true. Minimalism smooths over that insecurity. It praises my plainness and packages it as a lifestyle choice instead of a character flaw. It reminds me that spending time alone is infinitely better than spending time on relationships and experiences that don’t bring value into my life.
Minimalism affirms that everything I need can be found in the solitude of my simple and silly life. As such, because I am the person who was given and collected and earned what I have, I must be enough too.
After the initial KonMari-ing and decluttering and parting, the practice of minimalism just looks like doing other things. You take the empty space and fill it with your version of “what really matters.” According to minimalist influencers, this usually means family time, volunteering, or writing a mediocre blog about your time abroad. (I’m partial to the last option.) In the ideal situation, minimalism is a path into revealing a truer version of yourself. In the age of modern media, minimalism is also a rebranding tool.
Though minimalist design is meant to be absent of markers, it becomes a marker in and of itself. Pure function is simply not achievable. Homes and wardrobes will always communicate something: what you enjoy, what you value, your sensibilities. If you’re skilled, it can broadcast even more: your socioeconomic class, your politics, your connectedness.
Contrary to what might be expected, minimalism inspires an extremely refined taste in objects, even a desire for them to be symbols of identity and morality. In this way, it morphs into a form of curation. You whittle down the world of possibility into one or two aesthetics you can accomplish. And you build a personality, a whole life, off of that. This is the pitfall I find myself stuck in - wanting to convince you, through my appearance, of who I am. It's a catch-22. I don’t have many items because it’s not important to me to have more. In turn, the items I do have inflate in importance.
As promised, minimalism did inspire conscientiousness in my shopping habits. But maybe so much so that it is now a new source of overwhelm. If I’m supposed to use my things until they fall into disrepair, the pressure to choose them correctly intensifies. As a reward for successfully detaching from quantity, I subsequently became afflicted by quality.
As I examine the totality of my belongings, I have a craving to forgo gratitude and seek perfection.
I sometimes hesitate to call myself a minimalist. I’m afraid that I’m disingenuous in my pursuit for all the reasons I divulged to you above. I’m afraid that you’ll rightfully point out that minimalism is a euphemism for financial privilege before I do first. I’m afraid you’ll see my Nikes or my Mini Cooper and think I’m a hypocrite for owning luxury items. I’m afraid that you’ll judge me, pass me off as “quirky,” or whisper about my pretension. I’m afraid you’ll see me online, liking and sharing and lusting after new clothes, new hair, new year, new me.
Despite my amateurism and contradictions, I am a minimalist because I believe that I am. As a defense, I present Occam’s razor. It states that the simplest explanation is usually the right one.
When I discuss minimalism with others, I usually stick with the long-exalted benefits; it saves time, it saves money, it’s good for the environment, it literally and figuratively lightens the load. All of this is true. But I feel as if it’s a fragment of what has truly bonded me to minimalism, made it stick in a place that I cannot easily pluck it from.
Today, I practice minimalism to understand the self. It demands conscious and continuous interrogation of what brings and maintains my peace. It necessitates a deep understanding of my needs, values, and priorities. It frees me from a comparative understanding of value (I like my things because others like them) and guides me towards a self-focused ideology (I like my things because I like them). It makes my quest for happiness tangible and surmountable, something I can manage through inventory or decoration. It provides a vessel for intention. It offers control and contentment in an environment of simplicity. It absolves me from the guilt of desire, so long as I meet them in full and not excess. It reminds me that everything I need is within grasp, or already mine.
My practice of minimalism is a work in progress, as I am and always will be in progress. It’s a group endeavor because my hopes are wrapped up in yours. It is a series of missteps and rightings, a response to the tumult of life, a masterclass in self-forgiveness, and a resolve to be effortful and exacting. It is a catalog of everything that I own informing everything that I am, and the wisdom to separate from those associations.
For a long time, maybe even now, I believed that the goal of minimalism was parsing my possessions down into perfect alignment with my character and behavior. Once the pile was small enough, I’d be able to “one-in, one-out” for the rest of time, allowing small changes without disrupting the careful equilibrium. Falsely, optimistically, I hoped that if I downsized and invested in and curated a hundred or so odd things that spoke to me, I would finally know exactly who I am - and so would everyone else. Looking at my beautiful things, I would stumble upon something so irrevocably telling, so close to truth, that all insecurity would exit my life.
But I know that is false. There will be no magic bell to tell me when I've amassed a collection of items that express me well. No choir will sing, no prizes will be handed out, no friends will exclaim that my dining room table divulges a verifiable truth about my personality. Only I will know when I am satiated, and humans are notoriously shit at knowing themselves. To borrow from The 1975, “Why would you believe you could control how you’re perceived / When at your best you’re intermediately versed in your own feelings?”
So then, minimalism has no finale. The cursory struggle of item maintenance is the film over my eyes. It’s a preoccupation with wrangling capitalism into a conquerable sliver, still adherent to the folly of external approval.
When I am wiser and more disciplined, the next horizon is the discovery of and acquainting with the self that transcends ownership. The cultivation of an essential being, the core that persists in every setting. I must move beyond an obsession with cataloging and curating my belongings and communicating through materials and in-group markers. I must detach from the ego-inflating murmurs that praise my lifestyle while cutting down others’. I must love all my things - physical and digital and abstract - but gently so that when they are wrested from my arms, I suffer no wounds. Then, at peace with the superfluousness of possession, I will be, and perhaps more so than before, fundamentally myself.