I recently read a blog post from one of the minimalist blogs I follow about unplugging from technology for one day a week. Actually, it wasn’t that recent. It was, in fact, in August. I left the post in my Inbox and I’ve been thinking about it.
All right, procrastinating about it.
You see, although it seemed like an attractive idea, I couldn’t unplug in August because I had a family situation that necessitated watching my e-mail closely.
When that was over, I thought about it again, but then I was watching … what? I can’t remember. A possible hurricane down south somewhere? I think so. Anyway, I really wanted to watch it. It was important.
I observed myself both want to unplug for a day and resist unplugging for a day. It reminded me irresistibly of giving up honey in my tea.
When I came to Maine, I changed my lifelong, mostly plant-based, low fat, low sugar (by this I meant, you know, white sugar) diet to eating keto. More about that journey here, here, here and here. I had, at that point, started every day of my adult life with a large cup of green tea sweetened with a spoonful of honey. It was an important daily ritual. I looked forward to it, counted on it, needed it. On the road, camping, or at home, I had to have my green tea and honey in the morning. I could do without sleep, hot and cold running water and food, but my morning tea was nonnegotiable.
Honey, that delicious golden elixir I used to buy by the gallon in spite of the cost, is a carbohydrate. Our bodies do not distinguish between plain old white sugar, honey, agave or any other kind of “natural” or “organic” sugar. For me, this means inflammation, autoimmune disease and chronic pain.
I was determined to regain my health. The daily dose of honey had to go.
I have an extremely hostile relationship with addiction, as my family of origin is affected by it and I know I’m genetically and behaviorally predisposed. I’ve stayed far, far away from any substance or behavior I thought might potentially become addictive for me. At least, that’s been my intention.
However, life is going on while we’re deciding who we will not be and what we will not do, and although I was aware of how much I depended on my morning cup of tea, green tea is good for you, right? No harm in that habit.
Except I realized, after day two or three of tea without honey, the tea was pleasure. The honey was addiction. I needed it. I craved it. I was miserable and angry and deprived without it. My body needed that first hit of carbohydrate in the morning, needed it desperately because I was basically chronically malnourished and addicted to carbs.
I was completely chagrined. Life is very humbling sometimes. Have you noticed?
Me being me, all I needed was to feel how much I depended on the honey to become determined to give it up. I was building a new life, including eating a massive breakfast of animal fat, meat and eggs every morning immediately upon rising. I went right on drinking tea, but I stopped using honey. I stopped needing honey because I’d finally figured out how to feed myself appropriately. In time, the craving went away, along with the majority of carbs in my diet and chronic pain and inflammation.
Make no mistake, though. I whined and complained and bitched every step of the way. For a time, I considered giving up tea altogether. I would never enjoy it as much again. The honey enhanced the flavor, and it just wasn’t the same without it. What was the point? Getting out of bed was no fun. The morning was no fun. Never again would I have a big cup of Earl Grey tea with lemon and honey and spend an hour sipping and reading a good book on a snowy afternoon, etc., etc., etc. It was pathetic and maddening. I hated myself and everyone else, and I resented my physical need to delete carbs from my diet.
I couldn’t help noticing how similarly I felt about unplugging from technology for even one day, in spite of priding myself on not being captive to it. I have a cell phone I hardly ever use. It’s an effort to turn it on every three days or so and check for messages. I don’t use social media. Left to my own devices, I’d never watch TV. The only tech I really use is my laptop, but I use that for many hours every day. I’d love to be able to honestly say all that use is writing, but it’s just not so.
I check the headlines on MSN, even though I know it’s all click bait and I rarely believe much of what I read in the “news.” Then I check the weather forecast. I check my e-mail accounts. I read the Google news headlines, not as sexy and sensational as MSN and slightly more reliable. Maybe. I bank online. I run the blog online. I do research. I check on local movies. I play solitaire.
I play a lot of solitaire.
I loved the sound of unplugging from all this for a day. It was such a good idea I wondered why I hadn’t tried it before. As soon as I looked at my calendar with the intention of planning an unplugged day, I began to recognize resistance.
A lot of resistance.
I didn’t want to admit it. I use less tech than anyone I know. I’m smug about staying away from GPS, social media and the need to have a cell phone surgically attached to my person. The truth is, however, that I’m just as caught in the addictive net of tech as anyone else.
My choice about all this was to leave the post about unplugging in my mailbox, where I’d see it several times a day (because I check my e-mail countless times a day), and sit with my chagrin, my resistance and my recognition of my own compulsion to remain plugged in. I’ve been doing that for weeks now, alternating between resentment and amusement.
For some reason, late Saturday I decided I was going to take the bull by the horns and stay off the Internet on Sunday. Not off the word processor, but off the Internet. No after-breakfast check on the headlines, etc. while I drank my morning green tea (unsweetened). No first solitaire game, during which I thought about where to start working. No e-mail.
I needed to know I could do it, no matter how uncomfortable it was.
Minimalism is an amazing practice. It starts externally with objects, but once I began to look at my life in terms of what really matters and all the stuff that obscures and distracts from that, the internal work took over. My small experiment with unplugging from the Internet was a perfect illustration of the dynamic of unconscious clutter.
Sunday was the most spacious day I’ve had in months. I looked at the clock twenty times in disbelief. The day seemed to have about four extra hours in it. It was a beautiful autumn day, a day off from work, a day in which I didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything. I got out the crock pot and made a keto version of spaghetti meat sauce with no pasta. I did some good writing. I read. I stripped the bed and did laundry. I put on some music and exercised. I prepared for the work week ahead.
On Monday morning, I came up the stairs to my attic workspace and opened up the Internet to see what I’d missed.
I had more spam than usual in my e-mail, because I hadn’t checked every hour or so and deleted it as it came in. My bank account was just as I’d left it (darn it!). The headlines were the same old headlines. The autumn weather managed to exist without me having read the forecast. I’d somehow navigated a whole day without sitting down to play a game of solitaire while I thought about the next step.
It was an eye-opening experiment that will now become a weekly habit. It’s hard to think about totally unplugging and going screenless for a day, but not as hard as it was before Sunday. I am a writer, but writing is still possible the old-fashioned way, with paper and pen.
As I’ve worked on this post the last couple of days, my partner sent me a provocative article about our relationship with our smart phones. I’m not the only one rethinking my relationship with tech and clutter in general.
This summer is about resource. I’ve never picked a one-word summer intention before, but today I realize it’s been thrust upon me, willy-nilly. The Summer of Resource.
I’ve been working with the idea of minimalism, which forces one to take stock of resource in the wide sense. What is resource? Oxford online dictionary defines resource as “a stock or supply of … assets that can be drawn on by a person … in order to function effectively.”
When I think about resource, it’s a jigsaw puzzle, and like a jigsaw puzzle, every piece counts if one wants to end up with the whole picture. When I hear the word “assets,” money is the first thing that comes to mind. Then there are external natural resources, which are also closely tied to money and more finite every minute.
In a capitalist economy, that’s as far as most people explore resource. What’s the bottom financial line? What’s the cost versus benefit projection? What’s the tax picture? How expensive is firewood, oil, electricity and food? What is the interest rate? How affordable is housing?
Sadly, this is a short-sighted and nonsustainable view of resource. It’s also incomplete, because it doesn’t include intangibles that can’t be quantified in terms of monetary value, and so become invisible. These include space, time, creativity, soulfulness, heartfulness, love and compassion. Also, more subtly, faith, patience, playfulness, innocence and integrity, some of which qualities are targets of active contempt in this culture.
How do we quantify the resource of a life, any kind of a life?
Pick a closet in your house. Open the door. What’s the square footage of that space resource? What’s in the closet? Any item you don’t want and/or don’t use is not a resource. It’s just junk clogging up you space. “It’s mine,” “I’ve had it all my life,” “I paid a lot of money for this,” “my favorite aunt gave it to me” and “some day I might need it” are not indicators of resource. A resource helps us function effectively, remember? Any item we don’t use but hang onto anyway isn’t helping us function effectively. Our shoe collection, baseball card collection or belly button lint collection might temporarily give us pleasure, bolster our self-esteem, distract us or even be a financial investment (probably not the belly button lint, but remember Pet Rocks?), but our collections frequently cost money to acquire and demand space, time and management. They own us as much as we own them.
Even money, inappropriately managed, becomes an ineffective resource.
We are constantly assaulted by sophisticated marketing persuading us to buy products that will make our lives better. Most of us know intellectually we’re being manipulated, but the lure is irresistible. We’re so hungry for love, for healthy relationships, for comfort, for distraction, for beauty. It’s an empty promise, though. We buy, but we’re still hungry, so we buy more, like the good little brainwashed consumers we’ve become.
Many folks here in Maine harvest wood off their land in exchange for financial resource. Some harvest sustainably, but most clear cut. People sell what resource they can in order to stay afloat financially. I understand. I’ve done it, too. That destroyed forest, however, is — was — a natural resource of unimaginable complexity on a finite and increasingly depleted planet. Systems scientists are only now beginning to glimpse the intricate interconnections between life on Earth — all life on Earth, not just human life.
Life is resource.
Clear cutting a few acres of wood might help us face the immediate necessity to buy firewood this summer and heating oil over the winter. We can quantify those costs. We can’t quantify what the loss of those few acres are in terms of healthy land, water, air, and the innumerable forms of life destroyed with the trees. We don’t know exactly how the destruction of a few acres here in central Maine contributes to cumulative global breakdown and change, because we’re not aware of all the complexities of our dynamic living global system. It’s too big to think about, too far away. Many of us are simply trying to survive another day or week or month in the long spaces between paychecks. We’re far too overwhelmed and desperate to try to grapple with the whole picture. After all, if we can’t get through today there is no tomorrow.
What will the last tree be worth in dollars? In possibility? In beauty?
I can’t think about resource without thinking about sustainability. Working 60-hour weeks might provide comfortable financial resource, but it’s not sustainable. Using up money, time, space, patience, and even things like hope faster than we create or save them means we’ll run out, and when we run out of resource our lives stop functioning effectively — fast. Then we’re forced to shape a new life, whether we’re prepared to or not.
Renewable resources need time to renew. Few of us feel as though we have enough time, and what time we do have is sucked up in earning money, dealing with the consequences of how we manage it, and relationships. It’s possible to set aside time for self-care and creativity, but it requires discipline and boundaries. It’s possible to grow food and harvest natural resources sustainably, but not as long as we value money over all other resource and our population continues to be in overshoot.
Like everyone else, I have needs and limited resource available to help meet them, but if my life is too cluttered, noisy and/or busy, I lose track of both my needs and my resource. I forget I’m more than my ability to pay the bills, more than the numbers in my bank accounts. The practice of minimizing helps me remember to appreciate and protect all my resource, and make clear choices about sustaining and strengthening what I have so it supports who I am.
Minimalism encourages a kind of inside-out thinking. Not “I need a bigger house,” but “I need less stuff in this house.” Not “I need more money,” but “I want to spend less money.” Not “I need more time,” but “I want to do less with the time I have.”
Less, not more. The goal is to have what we need, but not more than we need.
What investments will truly increase my resource, financial, emotional, creative and intellectual? Only I can say. I’m the only expert on my own needs. I’m the only one who can identify the unrecognized or poorly managed resource in my life and implement different choices. No advertisement, expert, tweet, social media post or self-help book knows more about me than I do myself, and none can make choices for me. It’s all on me.
It will be an interesting summer. I’m letting go of objects, some in exchange for money. I’m liquidating a financial asset to pay debts and invest in my ability to spend less. I’m investing time, energy, faith and hope in my creative work.
I think about effective living all the time. What, exactly, do I need to have and do to live effectively, and what do I have and do that are not helping me achieve that goal? What does “effective” mean to me? What does my particular expression of being require to thrive? What are my total resources, and how renewable or sustainable are they? How can they best be invested in order to create more?
One of my favorite things about this land we live on is the old barn. Circa 1832 in the original part, it dwarfs the house and consists of four stories topped by an attic space under the roof. The cellar contains several rough animal stalls and is the occasional residence of a skunk, raccoon, woodchuck or grumpy porcupine. Phoebes nest every year in the cellar and first floor rafters. We store wood on the first floor. The second and third floors were an old hay mow and now are a repository for discarded furniture, miscellaneous remnants of wood, and old windows and doors. This is New England. These Yankees keep everything!
The barn is a tenement for rodents, bats, insects and birds, along with creatures like the aforesaid porcupine, who wander into the cellar in search of shelter.
When I moved to Maine, I stored some of my things in the barn; things I didn’t have room for in the house but wanted more accessible than the storage unit. Now that I’ve moved out of the storage unit and everything is here on the property, I’m determined to go through each box and discard what is no longer useful.
I work in the second story of the barn. The south wall contains a row of windows, several of which are broken. The west wall also has a broken window, and plentiful bat guano on the floor under it tells us this is their favored access point.
My hours in that space are strange, almost otherworldly. I sit on an old round lidded metal bucket that once contained popcorn. My table is the lid of a large plastic storage bin. I unpack the boxes I taped and labeled more than four years ago in Colorado, in a different life and half a world away. The barn is alive with stirrings and fugitive drafts. The wood floor dips and sways, creaking underfoot and showing cracks between the planks. The scent of apple blossoms floats in through the windows, along with the sounds of insects and the sweet calls of the phoebes as they hunt those insects. Once I’ve settled down quietly to work, squirrels, mice and chipmunks forget my presence and begin to scurry overhead and in the walls around me. I know bats are clustered under the roof, a floor and a half above me. Light comes in through countless cracks and crevices in the walls. The roof leaks in many places.
The body of the barn is loosening and thinning, much like my own skin; as it does so it’s becoming rewoven into nature.
I’ve gone through boxes and boxes of beading material, sewing supplies, wreathmaking tools and elements, camping gear, seasonal decorations and kitchen items. The quiet barn fills with my memories as I review where I’ve been and recognize the steps bringing me to this place and this moment.
We love increase in this culture. The journey of childhood to adulthood. Increasing income in order to increase spending power. Upscaling, upgrading, updating, trading in. Increased choice, increased technological power and speed, increased likes and friends, increased access to “information” and entertainment. Bigger, better, newer, faster, more.
Now, suddenly I find myself strangely captured by the beauty of decrease. Perhaps what I’m feeling is a kind of surrender, a letting go. The barn lets go of its glass window panes, its nails, its roof shingles, the mortar in its foundations. As the fabric of its structure thins, life pours into it. The world inhabits it. The boundaries between the building and its setting are softening.
Observing this process of gradually increasing boundary ecstasy is breathtakingly, almost piercingly beautiful. My appreciation of its magic mingles with tears, memories and nostalgia as I unwrap and handle my things, once so beloved and important in my life, now boxed and stored.
As I load up the car and donate to our local charities, sell or give away what I no longer need, the storage space in the barn gradually empties. Sunlight fingers the floor where a stack of boxes stood. An errant breeze swirls dust into a brief glittering cloud.
Is empty space, or an empty moment, ever really empty? Can it be? Is a quiet afternoon without distraction or entertainment sterile and boring, or filled with peace and possibility we no longer recognize or welcome but starve for nonetheless?
Watching the reflection of moving leaves or water and sunlight on a bare wall feeds my creativity and joy in a way the finest piece of manmade art never could.
As I empty my life of so many objects, it becomes like the barn. I allow the cracks of long use, weathering and aging to show. I allow my memories and experience to mingle with the light, the moving air and the life outside my boundaries and barriers. I feel less isolated and more grateful, less anxious and more peaceful.
What is a life defined by the spaces between objects and tasks rather than the objects and tasks themselves? What is life in the spaces between our debts, bank balance and paychecks? What are the gifts hidden in decrease, in the slow passage of time, in loosening skin and softening bone? How much creativity and wisdom fill the spaces between our obligations, habits and addictions?
What hidden infinities lie in the spaces between each tick of the clock, each heartbeat and each breath? How much light can come into me as I widen the cracks in my physical envelope? More importantly, how much of my light can shine out into the darkness around me?
I recently read an essay about honoring our past from one of the minimalism blogs I follow. I moved on to other things without saving it, but it continued to echo in my mind and I realized it held a deeper meaning for me than I first recognized. Of course, now I can’t find it again! Still, the blog is well worth exploring.
As I embrace minimalism , I spend time every day consciously assessing not only my internal clutter but also the objects around me. I’ve moved things around, put things away to see how my space or life felt without them, and let go of many objects and ideas.
We carry a lot of our past around with us. One belief I’ve carried all my life is that it’s disloyal and even hateful to change, to grow, to yearn for more or to leave jobs, relationships or places. That belief (Who taught me that? Why do I believe that? Is that true?) has caused a lot of pain in my life. It’s made me fearful, ashamed and inauthentic. It’s encouraged me to be much less than I am.
The essay I read proposes almost the opposite idea. The author expresses deep gratitude for her past experience and the people who influenced her, and she honors them by going forward into the future.
What a disconcerting idea! At the same time I recognize some kind of truth in it, a truth I don’t discern in my own beliefs about honoring the past.
As a mother, I want to see both my sons being bigger than I am. That doesn’t mean I want to see them with more to have and to do. I want them to have more to be.
I want them to fly free, the memory of our time together and the strength of my love and our connection the wind beneath their wings taking them onward and upward.
Yet I don’t give myself the same permission. I’m not sure I’ve ever taken a big step forward in my own growth, health and understanding without feeling it’s at the expense of someone else’s happiness and well-being. It always seems wrong — a betrayal, an abandonment or a rejection.
When it comes down to a choice between my own needs and the needs and demands of others. I never seem to be able to accommodate both myself and those around me. Until very recently, I’ve inevitably chosen to meet the needs of others rather than my own.
Today is built on all our yesterdays. If I lived in an empty room with nothing in it, my past would still have shaped today. I’d still remember my personal history, my family, my children, old friends and places, beloved animals, old activities and interests. Past loves and influences wouldn’t disappear from my life without my things. Forgotten or remembered, my past would still be with me and within me.
I can’t live in the past, though, any more than I can in the future. I can only live now.
I love this attic workspace, but one day I’ll leave it, as I left my beloved little home in Colorado four and a half years ago. It’s not the lack of love, respect or gratitude moving me into the future. It’s the ebb and flow of my life, the call of possibility, the itch of curiosity. My future self calls out to me, holding out her hands in encouragement, and I must answer the call.
Maybe our cultural obsession with things is about fear, or greed, or numbness or nostalgia. Maybe it’s about all those and others, too. I don’t know. But the idea that the best way to honor the past is to be fully in the present and consent to move ahead into the future seems blessedly simple, uncomplicated and unencumbered.
I’ve always longed for security. I’ve longed for relationships that don’t change, love and tenderness I can count on, the ability to give and receive promises and vows that never break.
I’ve also longed to be wild and free, to live a life that feels real and true, to be with others who both give and receive unconditional love and don’t seek power over those around them.
Objects will give me neither security nor freedom. Today I have a few favorite things I wear, use or live with. Some are new favorites and some are old favorites, handed down from my family.
Everything else is just stuff that’s here. I don’t really notice it unless I think about it, but I don’t need all these things and they’re weighing me down. A year from now my current favorites might no longer serve and I’ll let them go in turn.
As I write about it, this process sounds healthy, normal and natural. As I do it, guilt and shame tear at me. It seems to me that even growing up was hurtful; a deliberate betrayal and abandonment of my family. The least I can do is hang on to all the objects inherited or gifted by earlier generations.
But why? Does hanging on to such things really demonstrate love, respect or gratitude? Would my great-great grandmother expect me to cherish and care for something that belonged to her but has no meaning for me? If she did expect it, are her expectations more important than my wants and desires? Would she want me to make my life a shrine to her memory or go forward into my own life and follow my own path? What honors the memory of our ancestors the best?
Honoring the past by moving toward the future. Could it be that clean and easy? Could it be that elegant? If I live a life of meaning and purpose that does not include reverence for every object, tradition and idea I was brought up with or exposed to, are the ghosts of my past pleased or will they turn away and disown me?
Maybe it doesn’t matter. I know what I need to do.
I recently read an article from The Minimalists titled “Prepared to Walk Away.” The Minimalists is a blog about simplifying all aspects of our lives by reducing our physical, mental and technological clutter. For most who embrace this way of living, the first challenge is to declutter. The flip side of decluttering is mindful acquisition, and that’s the part of the essay that really caught my attention.
Some people think of minimalism as something practiced by wealthy elites who live in large, white, coldly antiseptic, ultra-modern spaces. It’s trendy right now to declutter and organize, an interesting push back against the relentless consumerism of the twentieth century. I hate clutter and love to be organized, but that isn’t what most attracts me to the practice of minimalism.
What I have my eye on are the intangibles in life, the stories, beliefs and habits accompanying us through our days. How and why do we acquire such things? How much of the acquisition is conscious rather than unconscious, and how heavily are we influenced by the people around us and their stories, beliefs and habits?
It seems to me the vast majority of our mental clutter is carelessly acquired or thrust upon us as an obligation. We humans are powerful in our ability to absorb influence, and we’re fatally prone to addiction. Our consumer culture has exploited these weaknesses mercilessly, from alcohol, sugar and cigarettes to video games, social media and the Internet. The media grooms us from childhood to be mindless recipients of stimulation to buy, to believe and to comply.
Critical thinking is unfashionable, to say the least. I look around me and see shriveled attention spans. Fewer and fewer people seem to respect or even recognize peer-reviewed, verifiable, fact-based science from the idiotic and ignorant ravings of malcontents, manipulators and madmen who peddle hatred, bigotry and misinformation to the masses from television, radio, the internet and social media.
Thus, we’re positioned, mouths agape, eyes reflecting the sparkle and shine of baubles and distractions, minds numb, stumbling through life with one eye on some kind of a screen at all times, while words and assertions assault us from every direction from thousands of gaping mouths and talking heads and millions of busy fingers.
Mindfulness? You’re kidding. Who has the time, quiet and space to even think about what mindfulness means, let alone practice it? How many people feel that the only way they can face their life is to avoid mindfulness at all costs?
Decluttering a closet is one thing. Can we sort through our ideas and habits and discard what’s unattractive, outgrown, outdated or worn out? It’s agonizing to consider a piece of clothing, especially a costly one that seemed like such an exciting deal when we got it, and realize we don’t wear it, don’t like it or it doesn’t go with anything else we wear. We’ve invested money in that item. It’s in good shape and of good quality. We can’t just discard it. What a waste! We’ll never get our investment back out of it.
Ideas, habits and beliefs are even harder to walk away from. We might not have spent money in acquiring them, but they tie us to our tribe, our workplace, our church, our family and our community. They influence our favorite social media platforms, our news and radio purveyors and our identities. Our addictions cement us into communities of other addicts, or at least into communities which enable our addictions.
We know everything about holding on: holding on to power; holding on to identity; holding on to our beliefs; holding on to stuff, either because we want to or someone else expects us to; holding on to grievance, outrage and fear. What we don’t seem to understand is how holding on locks us into place. We can’t grow. We refuse to learn. Fear has killed our natural curiosity and drive to explore.
On the other hand, a willingness to discard any object or intangible in our lives, if necessary, means we consent to grow, change, learn and be flexible and resilient.
Mindful acquisition is a conscious activity, an agreement we make with ourselves to buy that new item or explore a new idea or relationship, fully prepared to walk away if the item, idea or relationship become, at any time, a detriment rather than an asset.
It’s easy to think about objects in terms of money. Beliefs and habits are less concrete, yet our habits cost us far, far more than what we lose when we discard an expensive coat we just don’t wear. Talk to anyone who has tried to be in relationship with a workaholic or a substance, screen or gamer addict about the cost of our behavior. Money is, after all, only a symbol of value we agree to use. Our intangible clutter costs us relationships, connection, our health and sometimes our lives.
At first look, it seems being willing to walk away from relationships weakens our ability to connect. In fact, I think in the long run it strengthens healthy bonds. If I know both I and the other party are prepared to walk away, I’m responsible for making a choice, over and over again, to stay, nurture and invest in a healthy connection — for both of us.
Practicing mindful acquisition requires me to pay close attention to the thoughts, beliefs, ideas and habits I give time and energy to or consider adopting. Do they increase my power and joy or diminish it? How does my mental and emotional clutter interact with my relationships and ability to communicate and contribute? How do these intangibles affect my heath and energy?
The irritating thing about personal power management is that it takes work and mindfulness. We can’t stay asleep at the wheel. Sure, reclaiming our stolen, lost or dormant power is a rush, but then we have to be responsible for our needs, priorities and choices, choices about what enters our lives and choices about what we discard or walk away from.
Our lives are limited. At 55, I’m beginning to feel the edges. I want to minimize my clutter, from items to intangibles. I want to let light and space into my home and serenity and clarity into my head and heart. I want to feel the flow of energy in the form of money, love and creativity without distraction.
I moved to Maine with a U-Haul packed with things from my old life. I was moving from a small, tight, energy-efficient home where I lived alone to a slouching, leaking farmhouse with a cracked foundation and a peeling roof. I didn’t trust my cherished possessions to the dubious protection of the house or the barn, also dilapidated and leaking.
So I rented a storage unit.
Now it’s four years later and I’ve been reading and thinking about minimalism. Minimalism appeals to me because it creates space and simplicity in our lives. I’m gradually coming to understand even my most cherished possessions are not important to my quality of life. In some ways they even block my view and obscure thresholds and openings.
That’s not to say I don’t frequently miss my just-the-right-firmness double mattress and box spring in storage, or my comfy couch and matching chair. I do miss them, but they don’t fit into my life anymore and they don’t fit into the house. Literally. I don’t think we could get my modern overstuffed couch in the old front door.
My bed and furniture, along with a few boxes, have languished in subzero temperatures in the winter, and heat and humidity in the summer, and I’ve faithfully paid the monthly rent all this time.
A couple of weeks ago we had a call from the owners/operators of the storage unit to say there was flooding on the property.
Here in Maine, we have yet to experience a snowstorm this season that wasn’t mixed with freezing rain. What this means is layers of ice have built up on the frozen ground and clogged culverts and drains. As temperatures see-saw between normal below-freezing and subzero and much warmer air that turns falling snow to rain, the rain has nowhere to go.
The storm that caused the problem at the storage unit dumped several inches of snow and then three inches of rain. Cellars and basements that had never flooded before got wet. Intersections and streets flooded in town. It was a mess. At the storage unit, all that water couldn’t drain away from the buildings, so it crept along the ground and washed through them.
When we unlocked the door and pushed it open, we found ice covering the floor of the unit. The floor slopes a little, so the ice thickness varies from half an inch to two inches or possibly more in places I couldn’t see well. Everything on the floor is absolutely frozen solid to the cement.
Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash
For now, there’s nothing much I can do. After the initial look, I went back with a friend for moral support on another day. As I pushed up the overhead door, I had the usual pang of nostalgia and loss at the sight of the pieces from my old life, unused and abandoned. Added to that is the bitter cold and solid ice locking everything into place as though it will never let go.
The irony is inescapable. I was trying to keep those things safe from water and fire while I waited for a life they would fit into again. Keeping them safe felt like keeping me safe, or at least parts of me. Memories. History.
It’s all an illusion, though. How safe is any object? Objects get lost, broken or stolen. They get damaged. We have to manage them, care for them, protect them, carry them from place to place.
A couple of inches of ice have forced me to confront my thoughts and feelings about my stuff. Embracing minimalism is all about de-owning and decluttering, but as I go through my possessions in the house I’m in control. I can choose what to discard and what to keep. Now an act of nature has taken away some of my choice.
My cherished bed, for example, is nothing more than a mattress and box springs leaning against the wall in the back of a storage unit that got wet and are now firmly anchored in ice. When I am able to remove them and take them to the dump, all I’ve lost is the objects themselves. I’ll still remember with pleasure my wonderful bed and using all the bedding that goes with it. I’ll still remember my cat, gone now, with love and gratitude, and treasure the happy hours we spent together on that bed.
Photo by silviannnm on Unsplash
I’ve lost nothing but the necessity to store the bed for the sake of my memories and/or future possibilities. The truth is I have no use for a double bed in the life I’m living right now.
Why do we save things? Why are our lives full of things we wouldn’t buy today for the life we live now? Why do we save things “just in case?” Just in case of what? Does just in case ever come or is it merely a scary or hopeful story we tell ourselves? Do the things around us speak of who we are right now, or of who we once were or who we wish we were? Are we frozen in the past or in our fantasies?
The poet David Whyte says that most of us are at least three to four years behind our own growth and change. That struck a chord with me. My storage unit is filled with things from a life I left four years ago, a life I couldn’t go back to even if I wanted – and I don’t. I have moved on and out and up. As precious and sweet as some aspects of my old life were, they’re gone.
Except that I’ve been holding on, which has cost money and now created a situation requiring me to cut my losses and clean up. Maybe, if we took the front door off its hinges and even removed the door frame, we could have gotten my couch into the house, replaced the broken-down one we presently use, and been enjoying it all this time.
(Except the TV is always on in the living room. I hate the TV. The couch is mine. It used to be my reading place, but I can’t read in our disaster of a living room with the TV on. I don’t want it here if I can’t ever enjoy it! It’s mine. And the cat will sharpen her claws on it. And what if the house burns down?)
There is no moral to this story, aside from having learned it really is a good idea to put pallets down in a storage unit! It will be some weeks before the ice softens enough to chip off the floor and sweep out or melt. I have gone in and salvaged what I could, discarded some things, assessed some of the damage. Everything will have to come out while I dry the floor. Then I’ll need to discard whatever is ruined, buy and transport pallets and re-pack the unit.
Or maybe not. Maybe it’s time to reconsider the number of objects I’m carrying through my life. For far less than I’ve already spent on the storage unit we could have tightened up at least two of the outbuildings right here on the property for storage. How badly do I need anything I haven’t used in four years?
I’m inclined to be grateful for the flooding of my unit. It forced me to ask some important and provocative questions. It forced me to consider what’s truly important for my happiness. It challenged me to let go of things that no longer serve me without fear or regret.
When I left Colorado, I told friends I was coming to Maine because I thought I had a life here waiting for me. It’s taken me some time to find it, but I was right about that. I chose not to remain frozen in place, and that’s still my choice. Perhaps it’s time now to free my things from that old life as well.