It started with being burgled. That’s what sowed the initial seeds. The first I knew of the burglary was when I got to the checkout in Marks and Spencer’s. It’s customary for me to check my phone before I pay just in case my housemate has put in a last minute request for wine or milk. And there was a text. But instead of asking for some form of liquid it said “Don’t panic but we’ve been burgled”. There was much swearing as I scanned my items to the point where another customer asked if I was ok. “Just found out I’ve been burgled”. “Oh dear. Poor you”. Poor me indeed. And all my poor things. My poor laptop, my poor camera, and all my poor jewellery. As I stood surveying my room on that cold, dark, January night (the broken glass all over the floor, the ransacked drawers, the empty jewellery boxes, the one forlorn naked pillow – its case having been commandeered as a swag bag) there was no way of knowing that this run of the mill crime would be the inspiration for a journey into a previously unknown world: minimalism.
Technically it was the next morning, after a night’s sleep made unusually and rather pleasantly womb-like by the window boarded up by the emergency glazier (so warm, so dark, so cosy) that I got the first taste of a more minimalist lifestyle. Standing in front of my mirror, getting ready for work, there was none of the usual decisions about which earrings to wear (hold this one up to my ear, hold this one up instead, or maybe this one? No, maybe the first one after all). I now had only one pair of earrings – the ones that had been safely nestled in my ears as persons unknown were eagerly bagging up all their brethren. This ground zero event for my jewellery proved remarkably freeing. You collect a lot of jewellery over the years. All those beads, baubles and bangles commemorating various birthdays, boyfriends and holidays abroad. I had little jewellery of any real worth but there were things from my childhood, presents from friends and relatives, pieces from ex-boyfriends that, although not to my taste these days, were technically very nice, and many items from my travels – things that had become part of my representation of self as I roamed free and rootless across continents. None of these things I would have chosen to part with because of the memories associated with them. In addition to these sentimental pieces I had much cheap costume jewellery. In these days of Primark fuelled fast fashion it has become so easy to end up with so much. I had accumulated many a multipack of badly-glued earrings, really wanting only one of the pairs but happy to adopt their packaged siblings as well. And none of these I would have actively parted with either because what if one day the perfect opportunity arose to wear those gaudy little heart-shaped diamante ones – the clear runts of that multipack litter. If you had asked me before the burglary how I would have felt if I lost all my jewellery I imagine I would have rustled up such thesaurus offerings as “sad, angry, bitter, melancholic, full of lament and woe”. But in the face of this reality only one word sprang to mind: liberated.
Having no jewellery felt remarkably freeing. I had a chance to start a fresh. A clean slate to collect only things I actually needed and genuinely liked. I immediately resolved not to accumulate any more crap. I would only buy things that were worthwhile. Sure there was the odd piece I missed. The silver earrings bought from a man sitting on the pavement in Delhi, his wears spread before him on a tatty shawl. I’d disinfected them using a piece of toilet paper soaked in hand sanitiser when I’d got them back to my hostel. They had proved a versatile addition to my earring collection, going with many outfits and providing a subtle touch of traveller chic to any ensemble. Then there was that one pair of vintagey looking earrings, the clear alphas, in a Primark multipack, that had gone with all my swing dance outfits. And the antique rose gold ring, bought for me by my first boyfriend, that was now too small to fit my first three fingers on either hand. I had planned to bide my time until my hands grew fat with age when it might fit one of my little fingers. But the lament at the loss of these pieces was fleeting and paled in comparison to the sense of freedom I felt at being unencumbered by so many things that languished in my jewellery boxes, overlooked and unappreciated on a daily basis.
I told my mother that having no jewellery felt liberating; her face wore a look of shocked consternation, as if I had furtively admitted to enjoying some social taboo. This look of incredulity has been replicated on the faces of my female friends too. Maybe it is a social taboo to openly refute what we are told (You Need Lots Of Jewellery! Jewellery Is Desirable! Aspire To All The Pretty Things!) I think this incredulity isn’t just based on consumerism though, it also comes from our belief in The Power of Things. It’s not just that the pretty things were taken, it’s their sentimental value, the memories, what they represent, some intangible ascribed worth that has the power to gnaw at our soul if the material item is lost. I’ve always been a big believer in The Power of Things. My acutely developed attachment to inanimate objects means I’ve always been a hoarder. Even the most mundane of objects could trigger my ardent belief that the thing must be kept and nurtured – maybe it invoked memories, maybe it was important to me at some point in time, or maybe (and very often) I just felt sorry for it. Whatever the reason, I always felt I couldn’t possibly part with so many of the things I owned. But here I was, incredulous at my own reaction. The things had gone and it felt good.
However, all the things hadn’t quite gone. There was one little jewellery box the burglar hadn’t taken. It was filled to the brim with bead bracelets bought in Asia. I guess the burglar had looked into that little box and realised immediately that the contents were worthless. I don’t think I’d worn any of those bracelets in years. But of course I’d kept them, believing the fact I’d bought them on my travels gave them some sort of elevated status. And there was the “what if”. What if one day I wore something that they would go perfectly with. Most of them were bought in 2008. I was still waiting for their day to come. Rather than being pleased that this little collection had survived the jewellery apocalypse, I began to grow resentful of them. What was the point of them still being here? I never wore them. They just sat there taking up space. It felt so good to have nothing but they remained needlessly.
This resentment then began to spread beyond the bracelets. I began to imagine what it would be like if this feeling of liberation applied not only to my jewellery but to everything. What if the burglar had taken everything I own? That’s stupid, burglars wouldn’t take everything, most of my things are worthless. What if there had been a fire instead? What if there was a fire and everything went and I could completely start again, free from all this accumulated stuff that was suddenly everywhere I looked. But I wouldn’t want to lose my photo albums upstairs. And I wouldn’t want to lose my travel journals downstairs. You can’t pick and choose where the fire goes. Ok, a fire would have been a very bad thing. But wouldn’t it be nice to feel so free?
These were troubling thoughts. I’d always loved all my things, hoarding and curating them over the years. And my one biggest fear had always been a fire (watching The Towering Inferno at an impressionable age had been a bad idea). I’d always been terrified at the thought that a house fire would ravage my things and leave me with nothing. And yet, I entertained these thoughts of losing it all and being freed from my own possessions. It was almost like a veil had been lifted. Before the burglary, everything I owned had just formed the invisible backdrop to my life. But now I saw my living environment through different eyes. Everywhere I looked there was stuff. Stuff I didn’t need, didn’t use or just plain didn’t like. Why did I have all these things? The burglary let me view everything from the perspective of “what if it just wasn’t here anymore?” My jewellery being stolen had given me a peak behind the curtain of consumption, a sip of the Kool Aid. Now I wanted more. But without some act of God befalling my possessions and taking the matter out of my hands I didn’t know what to do about it. After all, no one just gets rid of all their stuff for no good reason, right?
I spent the next few months harbouring an impotent resentment towards my possessions until, one day, the internet stepped in. This article appeared in my Facebook feed, liked or shared by a friend. I realised I’d seen it scroll past in my feed sometime previously but I’d not clicked on it. This time I did. And I promptly fell down the internet, losing the next couple of hours to following the seemingly endless rabbit hole of links to articles, websites, blog posts, videos and book recommendations that took me further and further into the world of minimalism. This was it, this was the answer! I knew it immediately with a certainty I’d rarely encountered. Here was a whole community of people who believed in the redemptive power of getting rid of things. If I hadn’t been burgled I would have doubted their seemingly overblown claims of the freedom and happiness that comes from decluttering. Maybe I would have thought it sounded nice in principle but was certainly not for me, believing as I had that I couldn’t possibly have parted with my things that meant so much to me. But having been burgled I knew two things: the claims were true and, without a shadow of a doubt, this was something I needed to do.
I subscribed to theminimalists.com and bought the book “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying” by Marie Kondo. The more I read, the more I knew I needed to start down this path. The signs had been there all along. I’ve always liked things neat and tidy. Before I can start any work after school, I always have to tidy my classroom and my desk. Having an ordered work space feels good and helps me focus. And I liked to have my bedroom tidy; I would regularly dedicate time to making sure everything was put away in its correct place. So I knew I liked a life devoid of clutter. But it was always only a matter of time before things slipped back into disarray. And every time I tidied my room, I had the same thought, “If only I had more storage space”. I cursed my decision to have got a divan bed without drawers, imaging all that lost potential for storing my many things. If only I had more storage space, it would be perfect, I’d muse. But really I knew I should have ample space. After all, in my room, I have a double wardrobe, a single wardrobe, two chests of drawers, and I stored boxes of things on top of the wardrobes. This was in addition to the storage in the rest of the house: a large shelved cupboard upstairs, a cupboard under the stairs and an entire storage room at the back of the house. The majority of these spaces were taken up with my housemate’s things but fundamentally our spacious flat was groaning under the weight of our combined stuff.
However my new reading material was offering me a radical and devastatingly obvious solution: just get rid of the stuff. It was like being handed a get out of jail free card, a license for go against society’s norms. No, I won’t consume and accumulate and keep all this stuff. Why? Because I’m a minimalist. I tried out how it sounded. I liked it. It sounded strong. It sounded ideological. It sounded modern. It sounded like something I could say while sipping a cappuccino with a smugly arched eyebrow. And if that’s not a reason for undertaking any endeavour, I don’t know what is. The principle was simple: getting rid of unnecessary things gives you more time and energy to focus on what’s actually important in life. The Minimalists encourage you to ask the question “Does this add value to my life?” If it does, all well and good – it can stay. Marie Kondo asks “Does this spark joy?” Regardless of what the item is, if it sparks joy, it can stay. Apply these principles and you are left surrounded only by things that you love and are useful to your life. All the rest of the clutter and detritus is cut away, leaving a more simple, intentional living environment. What I particularly liked was the fact that adopting minimalism didn’t mean downgrading my possessions. I didn’t have to get rid of my iPhone and buy a more basic model (although this can be a recommended approach if the time dedicated to a smartphone isn’t adding value to your life). But for now, my iPhone (with whom I’m in a committed and loving relationship – it’s always so helpful, entertaining, and informative) was safe.
I dipped in and out of The Minimalists extensive collection of essays, followed links to other blogs (such as becomingminimalist) and read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying cover to cover. Having immersed myself in the online and literary world of minimalism it then came time to actually take my first steps into a minimalist reality. Like with many journeys, as I stood at this particular departure gate, there was a sense of anticipation (this was going to be an interesting and lengthy undertaking), a sense of excitement (could this bring some real changes to my life?) and a slight sense of trepidation (I was already thinking of some sentimental items that I knew should be discarded but were going to be hard to part with). I’d always known that material things don’t actually bring you happiness. But had I known it in the same way that I’d known smoking is bad for you, yet I’d continued to be a social smoker? I’d certainly not considered how all the accumulated stuff can weigh you down in invisible ways. But now it was time to break the habit of consumption and keeping. It was time to become a minimalist.