All six of us – hubby and I, two kids, zia, and baba – moved into a 1750 square-foot house. The kitchen is at capacity and we still have 6 more boxes to go through. The two-car garage and storage shed are also is filled to the max with furniture, tools and boxes.
It doesn’t look like it. It doesn’t look anything close to it. And yet, this is minimalism in action. . . .
What is minimalism – you may ask?
There are so many voices out there (The Minimalists/ Matt D'Avella) that can elaborate on the intricacies of minimalism. For purposes of this post, I’ll throw out one definition that guides me, now that I am on a more intentional journey:
As Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus of The Minimalists state, “Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.”
With that in mind, these pictures show the dwindled down remains of 43 years-worth of multigenerational “stuff” that has gathered through five progressively larger homes – little of which we find happiness, fulfillment or freedom in, and I’d argue the same for my parents even though they didn't know it.
What you see is the culmination of my efforts over the past 16+ years of gently supporting my parents as they slowly let go of their “stuff”, my own self-reflective letting go of physical possessions and working with my children to preemptively dissociate physical possessions from their identity, memory, and emotional wellbeing.
These gentle efforts have increased in intensity over time and have gone into overdrive in the past four weeks. A convergence of factors (explained below) led to where we are now:
Phase two in 1) stripping our life down from its excesses to what is truly important, what truly brings us joy and 2) giving ourselves the physical, emotional and psychological freedom we deserve. . . Minimalism!
So how did we get SO much stuff?
For some, I need go no further than to say I am the daughter of two parents from Soviet-Era Russia.
For others, I might have to explain a bit more to understand why, pre-culling, our back storage unit contained 7 broken vacuum cleaners, at least 5 boxes of electric cables/wiring, and new tools and/or appliances still in their packaging unopened after 10 years but purchased on sale or brand new from a 2nd-hand store.
And this is just a sampling of the items that filled every nook and cranny of our 2200 square foot house and 5 attached storage units that my father added on. I must admit that there were also many sentimental items, we’re book hoarders, and my parents brought a lot of ceramic (gzhel) and other artisanal items (khokhloma) from Russia.
You see, the reason for this excess is deeply rooted in the Soviet-Era scarcity mentality they could never shake.
Scarcity was real. It existed. It didn’t get conjured up by the media or politicians to fuel a consumerist culture. True, it was the dysfunction of the political system combined with rampant corruption that led to scarcity. Still, the scarcity produced was real and not a figment of any average Soviet citizen’s imagination.
That fear, that near-panic they felt for 35 years never went away. If something was available now, you took it because you didn’t know if it would be available tomorrow and you might need it.
If something was deeply discounted today, even if you didn’t need it, you would get it. Either you already had it but yours would one day break and you’d need to replace it. Or, you might need it to scratch someone’s back to get something, say, as simple as a telephone line installed in your communal apartment.
If you had something that was broken, you didn’t get rid of it because you rarely would be able to replace it. You could, however, find another broken one and use the good parts to fix yours. And you certainly wouldn’t get rid of the broken one ever because another part might fail and you’d need to replace that as well.
Scarcity Mindset in a Land of Surplus
So now the 7 broken vacuum cleaners make sense. The 10-year-old electric wok that was never opened makes sense. The boxes of electric wires and cables makes sense. The brand new, tag-still-on-them, birthday present jeans, sweaters, button-downs, cologne, shoes, etc. boxed up in the garage while frayed and weathered clothes in the closets and watered-down perfumes in the bathrooms makes sense.
The excessive amounts of canned and otherwise preserved foods (and f#ck expiration dates – expired food is better than no food) makes sense. The 30 mint-condition designer belts and shoes boxed away with tags from Goodwill makes sense (boy, did my parents know how to sift through second-hand stores).
The Scarcity Mindset’s Effects on Me Growing Up
The thing is, all that “stuff” was everywhere and overwhelming and one big mess. And growing up in overwhelming mess isn’t so great.
Mess doesn’t feel good - for anybody, even if the person doesn’t realize it. The feelings are just there. On one hand, I was frazzled, unfocused, and scatter-brained, with a thousand tabs open at the same time.
On the other hand, I had tunnel vision superpowers: the whole world could literally be falling apart around me and I can shut it all out and focus on the task at hand.
My favorite activity growing up? Sorting and categorizing the gum and candy rack while my mom was in line at the grocery store. I’m sure some will say it was a developmentally appropriate activity. I still say it went a bit further, closer to obsession.
Organizational systems? Stationary stores? My goodness, from this kind of planner to that kind of project management template, . . . to books on organizing, to documentaries and, later in life, blogs and apps, . . . I was obsessed (My version of bullet journaling has kept my mind somewhat sane for the past year and a half).
I scoured through them all with tunnel vision. I had to. I lived (until 5 days ago) in the home my parents bought 26 years ago! 12 years ago, when they left and we moved in, they didn’t take everything with them. They took what they thought they needed, and meanwhile, we were storing all of their old stuff!
On a positive note, holding on to their stuff helped us NOT buy a lot of things because there was no room for anything else. I also just want to put out there that I’ve never needed too much stuff – and “needed” is the operative word.
I’ve traveled around a bit. Two suitcases for my studies at New York University. One suitcase for each summer work/study abroad. Two suitcases when relocating to Washington, D.C. for almost a year. And, proudly, for a family of three relocating to Trinidad and Tobago for two years, one 5x7x8 ft shipping container.
My major weaknesses? Sentimental items and reading materials – books, articles, etc. There was also some of the usual – a few pairs of pants that didn’t fit anymore but I kept because they were my favorites and I hoped they would fit again one day. These items stayed at our home base in Los Angeles.
My other weakness? My deep and profound empathy for my parents. Understanding the psychology of what they were doing. Feeling how deeply they felt for the sentimental value they imbued their belongings with.
The Previous Cullings
There were three prior attempts at reducing the overwhelm. It was important to remove the unnecessary in a way that wouldn’t crush my parents and the way they had been living for the previous 65+ years of their lives.
I also knew that, in addition to the emotional investment in their “stuff,” they also spent a TON of money on it. To be fair, a lot of their “stuff” DID have significant monetary value. I couldn’t just throw (wasteful) or give it all away. I couldn’t let my parents witness their hard-earned money just given away.
So, the previous cullings (when they remodeled their home, when they moved out and we moved in, and, two years later again, when my parents moved back in with us) were smaller and gradual.
Every single time, I was in shock at the sheer quantity of things. I think they were too because they had no idea what to do with it all. It all just sat, overflowing into all the rooms of the house (this and the one they moved into). We (my husband and I) slowly coaxed them along through the process.
We’d play this silent game sometimes. When my parents were gone, we would throw a few valueless items away. Days later, we’d notice some of those same items right back in their place (my dad would periodically check the trash bins).
Where We Were Four Weeks Ago
For a million reasons, we decided to sell our family home - needing more backyard space for the children (especially while quarantining), downsizing property taxes in perpetuity, needing a separate and adjoining space for my mom to protect her from anything the children might bring home if and when they return to school, creating better cash flow to jump on good financial opportunities that will lead to financial independence and the worldschooling life we are planning for. . . to name a few.
The loyal Russian daughter side of my also feels compelled to share that this decision was in the works before my father passed away, and was discussed with him as well. It is actually very unfortunate that he doesn’t get to see this new stage in our journey.
This means that right now, we are in the fourth Great Reduction. I know certain “minimalism” or “simplification” methods might say that doing this piecemeal isn’t a good idea.
For example, if I understand correctly, Rule 3 of the KonMari method says to finish discarding first. At the same time, Mari Kondo didn’t have to sort through the contents of our home in four weeks, while homeschooling the kids, and looking for a short-term rental, and taking care of grandma and during a pandemic and quarantine.
So, we’ve spent the last 4 weeks weeding out as much as we possibly can – and there is only so much you can do in 4 weeks under the above-mentioned conditions.
We know that the items that did not make it to the rental we are now in were certainly “unnecessary” items. Some were quite literally trash. Some were recycling. Some we gave away to friends. Some –quite a bit – we donated to Union Rescue Mission. We tried to minimize waste as much as possible, and yet, two truck-loads of trash were removed from the property.
We are in temporary housing for the next 6 months, while we sell the home and buy a new home. In theory, the only boxes out of the garage in the photograph should be items we need over the next 6 months. The reality of moving and having the boxes unloaded at 11p.m. is that many of the boxes out of the garage should have been left in the garage and many of the boxes dispersed throughout the garage actually need to be unpacked.
Still, this is nothing compared to the colossal amount of possessions that have taken up physical and mental space in my life for the past 26 years. Once all of the boxes that belong in the garage are in and once all those that should be out are sorted away, the next phase will begin.
Why This is Minimalism
Returning to Millburn and Nicodemus: “Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.”
This IS minimalism in action.
I can breathe again. This feels good.
This is when I can safely say that at least 60% of our family’s “stuff” (and I say, “our family’s” because I cannot artificially separate my mom’s stuff from ours – we live together, we are together, her things are ours and ours are hers) that doesn’t "spark joy” or fulfill us, or bring happiness, or have purposes or whatever words you want to put to it, has already been removed.
This is when phase two begins: I can finally plan, organize, sort and dispose of the rest of our family’s physical possessions. I can now sit with that definition of minimalism and go through everything, box by box to if the items there are life excesses weighing us down or really important and add value.
I dare say that we did such a fantastic job in such a short time that we might not have enough “stuff” to set-up a pick-up of donation items (at least until after an estate sale?!? – still figuring this piece out during a pandemic).
I can now also say that the only things leaving this rental with us and coming to our new home are items that I owe it to my father to try to sell and items that our family needs. . . and maybe some toy/books I might have to sit with my children and go through a slower process with (I will never take anything out of our house that they have used without telling them about it)
I will certainly be posting more and more . . . and more of this process as I continue through it. I thank those of you who travelled with me through this long post. I look forward to sharing the (hopefully not always) difficult and liberating journey that I am intentionally taking in leading a life of minimalism and what that minimalism looks like for our family.
I’d love to hear, in the comments below and/or on the Facebook post, from all of you about what minimalism might/does look like in your family, what your struggles and joys are in this process and what has helped you on your path.