On Taking Better Care of Our Stuff

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Much of minimalism revolves around detaching yourself emotionally from your things. Declutter this, throw away that, donate what you don’t love, and so on. But what it does not preach so much is how to take care of or maintaining what you do have.

I learned a very expensive lesson when I dropped my camera on a recent trip to London. I was changing the lenses and forgot to wear the strap when it slipped out of my hands and onto the concrete ground. The impact ended up damaging the sensor and causing an ugly black mark to appear on all my subsequent photos , and for my readers who aren’t also photographers, sensors are extremely costly to replace. That incident reminded me of how I really need to take better care of what I do have – things do have a lifespan, but they can be increased with proper care and lovin’.

I’ve talked about the maintenance of things and how they can be burdensome. Things that require a disproportionate amount of care (such as luxury handbags) tend to not provide worthwhile returns. As I’ve settled into my new normal as far as quantity of belongings goes, I’ve been noticing the wear and tear on my things more as I mostly keep what I use every day or at least on a regular basis. I stopped using the dryer for anything other than bedsheets (which I only dry because I only have one set) and began hanging my clothes instead of using the dryer,  just like how I no longer dry my hair with a hair dryer. After all, it seems silly that we need to have these machines that cost  a few hundred dollars spin our clothes around and blow hot air on them – clothes are advertised to last x number of washes but who knows about the dry cycles. I hand wash all my knives, pots, and pans. I make sure that I don’t keep any messy piles around where things can damage each other from just bumping into other things (jewelry is a good example of this). I clean my bike regularly. I keep tabs on what I have in my refrigerator so I don’t waste food. The same can be said about our bodies. Our bodies are designed for movement, and I take great care to ensure that I am active every day. Long flights and train rides make me jittery (I have urges to do pull-ups on the safety bars). Exercise is a celebration of what our bodies are capable of, and it pains me to think that so many people never realize their bodily potential. The less time we take to take of our bodies, the more quickly our bodies will deteriorate over time. And we must use our bodies every day.

Things are responsibilities and I feel that I have a responsibility to take care of things that serve me. The fewer things that I own, the more attention I can devote to taking care of them. Chances are, some amount of the earth has been destroyed to create the things you own. We won’t be able to be perfect about it, but let’s take a little time to take care of what we do have, if at least not to need to buy replacements and require more resources from the planet than we’re already consuming.

Passion and Mom’s Closet

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Passion is a curious, paradoxical thing. It has the capability of completely wiping out our energy stores faster than we can replenish them, at the same time endowing us with the energy we need to take action. It is a catalyst for hard work and dedication, breeding elite athletes, scholars, and artists. Passion makes us scream, yell, and cheer at sports games. It makes us cry and hit things when we feel frustrated. Passion keeps us awake at night, mulling over thoughts and kneading them over and over like a lump of dough. It is an emotion that is fraught with intensity to a level that defies logic. And that is why we must keep it in check, lest we careen over the edge of sanity and sensibility, and it turns against us and overdo ourselves to our breaking points. Then we step into the land of Unhealthy Choices.

Too often, we use stuff as a measure of how much passion we have. To show our passion for others, we shower them with gifts. We don symbolic jewelry and graphic tees. We plaster bumper stickers on our cars. We buy logos and proudly display them. We buy gear and supplies, often hoping that the purchases will guilt us into following through on an activity we’ve been meaning to do. We keep things to display to others who we are and what we represent.

These outward shows, as we know, are just the tip of the iceberg. We can draw some inferences from them, but only just a sliver. We truly get to know people by being with them, not by just looking at them or watching them from afar. By experiencing life with them. By having a two-way conversation with them. By listening, taking in, and comprehending. No need to agree or disagree with them, perhaps – but you know, the beyond-the-stuff and beneath-the-skin difficult and mushy stuff we all keep repressed deep inside.

The journey of sifting through of things and letting them go is a truly personal experience. And this was a journey my mom had to go through when she decluttered her closet. Decades of stuff piled up in boxes and on shelves were confronted and thanked for their service before being passed to another owner. And then the newly found time and energy was redirected to writing about her childhood memories. How awesome is that?! These stories helped me know her better than a pile of things ever would. Stuff has a way of occupying the mind despite not actively interfering with day-to-day life, and confronting it helps us refocus our attention to our passions.

5 Items I Don’t Miss & 5 Items I’m Glad I Own

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Is it ironic that a minimalist would write a post on “stuff,” the very “stuff” that we’re trying to detach ourselves from? Yes, humans invented millions of tools and objects, but I’d still give credit to the people who devise clever things that actually make our lives better or easier. I’ve decluttered hundreds of items from my life, but a few of them stick out in my mind as things I’m certain I made the right decision on.

5 Things I Booted Without Regret

  1. Bath mats. I used to own two memory foam bath mats and had them lying in my bathroom for my wet feet. They got so dirty so quickly, caught a lot of hair/dirt/lint/grime, took forever to dry, and had to be cleaned so frequently that eventually I threw them out. It’s not much extra effort to dry the bottoms of my feet before stepping out of the
  2. Dish drying rack. After a few iterations of dish racks, I settled on an oversink solution. I have a dishwasher and everything except my pots, baking pans, and knives are dishwasher safe, so I don’t really need more than that. More counter space and no more moldy plastic!
  3. All of my leather bags. Leather is high maintenance and good leather is expensive. My Patagonia bag is big enough for a 3-city trip in Europe and durable enough for daily bike commutes.
  4. Decorative porcelain and specialty glassware. Not worth the storage space/worry about knocking them over/cleaning off the dust, and like most decorations with no purpose other than to look pretty, I got tired of looking at them.
  5. Jeans. As an athleisure addict, I stopped wearing jeans. Even Uniqlo’s ultra stretch jeans, which I wore for years before finally donating them (and they were still in excellent condition!), couldn’t beat the comfort of stretchy skinny Ponte pants. Jeans are fashionable, sure – but if you’re like me and prize comfort/practicality over fashion (but look for pieces that intersect the two), you might find that jeans, while excellent for heavy-duty work or painting jobs, are just too stiff and take forever to dry to earn a place in your closet. There, I said it. I don’t own jeans, and it’s okay!

On the flip side, here are…

5 Things I’m Glad I Own (this list was harder to write!)

  1. My road bike. It is my workhorse in fair weather. It is my workhouse in less than fair weather. In exchange for just a little more time, it has greatly improved my commuting experience, strengthened my body, given me another appreciable form of transportation, and another network of friendships. It is a life-giving, money saving item!
  2. My electric toothbrush. If you haven’t upgraded from a normal toothbrush to an electric one…you’re missing out on epic levels of cleanliness in less time and effort. The first time I saw my dentist after buying an electric toothbrush, he complimented me on how clean my teeth were, and I stopped getting cavities!
  3. An oversized 8×10 shag rug. My mom had a couple of extra couches that she gave me, but I often have more guests around, and instead of buying an even bigger couch for my already small living space, I bought a giant, thick, and fluffy rug. It doesn’t shed, is insanely soft, and the high pile makes it fun to lie around in. The drawback of high pile shag is that they are harder to clean, but for how much use it gets, I don’t mind it at all.
  4. My speaker system. I grew up on music, and the difference is palpable when you have a sound system to enjoy it with.
  5. My iPad mini 4. Some minimalists may chastise me for this one. But I am an ultralight traveler, and bringing a laptop is almost always too much, and bringing only a phone is bad for my eyes. My iPad is just perfect. Apps can help me great fun digital content (videos, pictures…) and I can read eBooks on it. The portability makes it easy to record aerial videos and even whip up a blog post in a pinch.

It ended up taking me twice as long to finish the second list, which just goes to show how easy it is for me, and indeed most people, to take things for granted. Sometimes, it is a fun exercise to analyze what you have in the house and realize that your real needs (outside of survival) are satisfied by meaningful relationships, activities, and interactions. Everything else is just stuff. Stuff doesn’t reciprocate.

Bring on the good life, fueled by what matters most to oh-so-unique you.

Having Interesting Stuff Does Not Make You an Interesting Person

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Back in my Buffalo days, I scoured estate sales. For the uninitiated, an estate sale is literally an open house event where everything inside the house is for sale. They usually happen because relatives don’t know or don’t want to deal with the stuff in the house after the owner dies, so in a effort to liquidate all the extra STUFF, they hire an estate liquidation company to appraise everything, advertise the sale, and run it, sometimes for several days. It’s definitely an odd thing for a 23 year old to do on the weekends – walking into dead people’s houses and buying their stuff – and in retrospect, not a great use of my time, because even though I’ve seen it all – floor-to-ceiling collections of snowmen toys, elaborate glassware, two hundred year old plates passed down multiple generations – the collections of “stuff” didn’t tell much of a story. After a while, every dead person’s house was the same – a bunch of uninteresting piles of stuff.

We often use our stuff to craft and depict our identities as though we were being studied by the rest of the world. And we do the same for others – that guy with the Porsche, that woman with the extensive Gucci handbag collection, that man who owns a rubber ducky collection, that woman who owns a swimming pool. Those things are infinitesimal parts of a person blown out of proportion by ads in an attempt to persuade us that what we own will magically transform us into what we aspire to be or what we think we represent. Sexy, says the Chanel perfume ad. Daring, says the Michael Kors ad. Healthy, says the Whole Foods ad. Trendy, says the H&M ad. Athletic, says the Nike ad. Powerful businessperson, says the Banana Republic ad. Classy, says the fine wine ad. Adventurous, says the Patagonia ad.

Fun fact: You could buy their products and be none of those things.

Curating a collection of interesting stuff tells me very little about a person. Does owning comprehensive makeup collection make someone a good makeup artist? No, it just tells me that person spends a lot of time buying makeup. Does owning fancy shoes tell me that person has good taste in footwear? No, it just tells me that person spends a lot of time buying shoes. See a pattern?

Yet…why does it matter? We care a lot about “being interesting,” but what does that entail?

I don’t really care if my neighbor has a bigger house, more expensive car, or even on the flipside – a smaller car, a smaller house. We meet others based on mutual interests, which is a good place to start connecting with others, but two people can like the same things and still be completely incompatible.

If we truly want to get to know someone, then we would go straight for the heart. We would unearth that person’s strength of character by asking the loaded questions. Things that will get you straight to the depths of “interesting” that we desire so much.

“What do you fight for?”

and

Who do you fight for?”

and

How do you fight?