Minimalism and literature (Part 1: thoughts from 2017)

A Startling Statistic

According to an LA Times article on American consumerism, the average household has 300,000 things (MacVean). As I ritually clean up my children’s toys, my books and magazines, and our dishes and clothes, I understand the dilemma. I spend hours cleaning, sorting, and organizing these items each week. I’ve just been doing it so long that I’ve normalized it.

It happens quickly, you get your own place with a ragtag collection of furniture and kitchen utensils and appliances and then you meet and combine households with someone who has their own collected set of stuff. This isn’t even counting all the forgotten materials denoting hobbies that never came to be. I found five tubs of protein powder on the same day I found a plastic tub of clothes from before I ever had kids. The clothes fit, so the protein powder got chucked.

I’ve got a bookshelf of ways to fill up my free time. I don’t remember what free time looks like but there the tomes sit, collecting dust. Hand lettering, weight training, graphic design, coloring, Spanish, essays on working with English language learners…I’ll get to it when I have more free time.

Among the collections, there is a line of bobblehead Star Wars characters, another shelf of Game of Thrones characters. My bookcase is bloated with the traditional literary canon as well as various other authors leaning towards science fiction and fantasy or adventure stories that I have read to escape but haven’t picked up since. There are things I haven’t meant to collect like ponytails in various colors and levels of elasticity and not one but three different reading lights as I could never find these items when I needed them.

I was pretty surprised at how much stuff I had accumulated over the years. I am not keen on shopping and I don’t own an ounce of jewelry. Still, the items I had collected were taking up space and, more importantly, time. And what did I do with it all? I packed it in nooks and crannies and even went as far as to get large plastic bins which were forgotten in a mass of archived Christmas decor and camping equipment. I wasn’t minimizing, I was organizing my load to make room and for what purpose?

In our day and age, Americans own more now than they ever have. Students in my class who read To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee are emotionally distanced from the characters who don’t have access to proper clothing or food. “We don’t live in that time anymore,” they say. “People were so poor then. We aren’t poor now,” another would add. Though The Great Depression was more devastating than any other economic crisis including The Great Recession, people are much further in debt than ever. According to Matthew Frankel of The Motley Fool, the average household holds $90,336 worth of debt (Frankel). This makes sense as I look around at the sheer volume of items and gadgets in our house. The money I spent on that Fitbit could have gone towards an extra car payment. That money I spent on that new video game could have gone towards my retirement account.

In my research on minimalism, people who take on the task of achieving a life with less (less debt, less waste, fewer items) really want a life with more (more time, more strength in their relationships, more travel, more financial freedom and security). Minimalists take a hard look at anything that touches their lives and wonder, Does this add value? If the answer is no, then why consume?

Here are more statistics as provided by Joshua Becker’s article “21 Surprising Facts That Reveal How Much Stuff We Actually Own”:

  • The average American woman owns 30 outfits—one for every day of the month. In 1930, that figure was nine (Forbes).
  • The average American family spends $1,700 on clothes annually (Forbes).
  • While the average American throws away 65 pounds of clothing per year (Huffington Post).
  • Nearly half of American households don’t save any money (Business Insider).
  • Our homes have more television sets than people. And those television sets are turned on for more than a third of the day—eight hours, 14 minutes (USA Today).
  • Some reports indicate we consume twice as many material goods today as we did 50 years ago (The Story of Stuff).

Burn It, Burn It All

Well, maybe not burn it. I can’t say that anything that I have boxed up has any added value to my current circumstances. What am I doing with my gargantuan wedding dress? My daughters aren’t going to want it as it will probably be out of fashion by the time either of them makes a decision to get married. My books, I’m donating them to the school and to friends. Everything else, the twenty eight thirty-two boxes in my garage that I’ve gathered over two months and the toys my children are playing with now but will forget about in three months along with the clothes they will have grown out of will all be sold at a garage sale. Those items not sold will be donated.

Text Connections

There is a similarity to the protagonists of our texts. I imagine what is was like for Chris McCandless to leave it all behind.  McCandless, in breaking his financial ties to his parents, separated himself from fulfilling the future they imagined for him.  In eliminating debt, we are no longer indentured to company contracts. Just so, in owning less stuff, I am not a slave to my mess. McCandless went off into the great Alaskan wilderness and met his fate. He was sick of the expectations put on him by society and by his family. Ultimately he met his doom so I wouldn’t recommend venturing into the wilderness alone without significant survival skills. Nor would I want to be that far from community.

 

Of those in our time who have eschewed consumerism but not community, one example I admire is minimalist Colin Wright who only owns 52 things and writes about his international travels and vagabond lifestyle. He entrenches himself in the societies of each country. It seems amazing to me that someone could just leave all that is familiar behind like that. We are social creatures after all and saying no to possessions is not the same as saying no to society. One does not have to become Henry David Thoreau living on Walden Pond to see the value of individualism or transcendentalism.

Still, it’s funny that those practices meant to help us socialize create hermits out of many of us at least IRL (in real life).  Wade Watts of Ready Player One lived a vagabond lifestyle out of necessity to ensure his survival and to escape the clutches of IOI which has too many citizens under their thumb as indentured servants. This indentured servitude is not so far from reality as I’ve met many career persons internationally who have a minimum of years they must work for a company after having their education subsidized.

Socially, Wade Watts is (I hope) an extreme futuristic example of being too plugged in. Up until the end of the novel, he had yet to meet his best friend in person. When he does meet his friend Aech, he finds someone who has been physically misrepresented through their avatar. This is exactly what an online presence has the power to do. It shows others only what we wish to show them, thereby eliminating many our our very human imperfections. I think we can be guilty of that in our consumerism. Buy this brand, eat here, own this type of television. Wear expensive high heels if you are a woman, drive nice cars if you are a man.

What Now?

Just like Thoreau and Emerson and the transcendentalists of old, minimalists are all about self-reliance and being more aware of that which you surround yourself with. Minimalism isn’t really about physical objects but is more about deliberately selecting how you spend your time, money, and energy.  I can’t say that my reasons are as salubrious or even as prudent. Mostly I just want to stop having panic attacks when I think about preparing to sell our home. With that said, I still have stuff but it’s maybe down to two-thirds of what it was. I am not likely to go super modern in my furniture selections and you certainly won’t see me in a tiny house as small spaces give me the heebie jeebies.

Many of the suggestions of minimalist life do appeal to me, however. I enjoy having more money in savings now and I don’t have to spend more than five minutes figuring out what to wear in the morning. My next step will be to examine my waste production, that is, to examine how I can make changes to reduce the amount of waste I make using paper towels, buying packaged foods (recycling is still waste), and personal care products. I’ve been making my own laundry detergent for years now at what probably amounts to 25 cents a gallon. I don’t miss paying $7-$12 on store bought big brands.

It seems in our best interest to spend less time and money on the things we surround ourselves with and more on the people we surround ourselves with. This last weekend, instead of organizing and dusting the mounds of toys and trinkets, my children and I played with what was available. My oldest daughter didn’t have to jump from one toy to the next in a futile effort to keep herself interested. She found one toy, played with it for a while, checked in with me, checked in with her sister, and went back to playing with said toy. She was happy and she didn’t once cry out “Where is my __________!” It was a relief for all of us and I consequently have received more attention and hugs. The two of them even helped me put away clothes and sweep. We could spend time doing that because there wasn’t Oh-so-much-to-do. In any case, whatever I do or don’t adopt, I can at least get on board with the exit line to every podcast the duo The Minimalists share: “Love people, use things. Because the opposite never works,” (Fields-Millburn and Nicodemus).

Works Cited

Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. New York: Crown Publishers, 2011. Print.

Fields-Millburn, Joshua, and Ryan Nicodemus. “The Minimalists.” The Minimalists. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2017.

Frankel, Matthew. “The Average American Household Owes $90,336 — How Do You Compare?” The Motley Fool. The Motley Fool, 08 May 2016. Web. 01 Feb. 2017.

Krakauer, Jon. Into the wild. New York: Anchor , 1997. Print.

MacVean, Mary. “For many people, gathering possessions is just the stuff of life.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 21 Mar. 2014. Web. 01 Feb. 2017.

“Meet Colin Wright… World Traveler, Minimalist and Entrepreneur!” K International. Alison Kroulek Web., 15 Oct. 2013. Web. Image. 06 Feb. 2017.

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