To talk about my journey of building a minimal wardrobe, I kind of have to tell the story of my relationship with stuff and my history with minimalism and simple living as a whole. Prior to 2012, I could point to a few key moments that had a lasting impact on my thoughts about possessions, but trust me, if we start diving into childhood experiences, it could get messy pretty quickly. So, buckle up. We’re going to nutshell it real quick.
In my early life, I remember being overwhelmed by possessions. I come from a large family – I have two brothers and two sisters – and we homeschooled back before it was quite so trendy, so to a degree, having lots of stuff came along with the territory. Stuff stressed-out my mother. Stuff had to be cleared away before people visited. Stuff had to be moved from one spot to another for every activity. As an adult, having been in many other people’s homes, I know we weren’t the only ones with this issue, but it’s a feeling I remember strongly just the same: the feeling of being trapped by stuff.
Now, this next part tends to quiet a room when I tell it. But I don’t tell it for pity or for shock value. I tell it because it’s has shaped who I am. I started writing this post with the aim of leaving this part out entirely, but I couldn’t. It needed to be told.
At age 14, I started from scratch, as far as possessions go. My family’s house burnt down one snowy day in January. I had sometimes thought about what I would take with me if my house were ever on fire, and I’m pretty sure my list included an outfit or two I had purchased with babysitting money, probably my walkman or whatever early 2000s electronic gadgets I was obsessed with at the time, and my collection of CDs. But I tell you, in that moment with the smoke billowing around me and my younger siblings screaming, the only thing that mattered was getting everyone out unharmed. I grabbed a pile of coats that was sitting by the door and did headcounts to make sure everyone made it to the front yard.
I’ll spare you the anticipation and tell you now that everyone was safe and fine and out of harm’s way. We were barefoot in the snow and a little bit traumatized as we watched the flames lick at the windows, but we were ok. That night, my large family was split up among family members so that everyone had a bed or a couch to sleep on. My sister and I – the oldests – were separated from our parents and siblings and sent to stay at my grandmother’s house. I remember laying on her fold-away bed, under a sturdy quilt, unable to sleep. I still feel the intensity of the realization that I had that night; the only things I owned were the clothes on my back. Nothing was certain.
It’s difficult to separate possessions from the idea of security. At times in my life, I have collected things because they have made me feel secure. That night, my security had been ripped from me. My home of 10 years had been gutted by smoke and heat and flames. The possessions and clothing I had gathered in an attempt to define myself had literally melted into nothingness.
Two key lessons soaked into my bones from this experience: 1) When you really get down to it, the only thing that matters is the people in your life. As long as my family was safe and unharmed, the rest did not matter. The things were replaced. People in our community showed up and gave and loved us. But they would never have been able to replace the loss of a soul. 2) I can lose all of the physical possessions I own and the world does not end. I can move on and start from scratch. I am very fond of many of my belongings. Especially now that I choose with care the things that surround me. But if I lost it all, it wouldn’t be the end. Memories are not the objects. Objects are not the memories. The memories are in me, and my siblings, and my parents, and we can still laugh and cry and remember the times we shared without the possessions we used to own.
On a deep level, this experience changed my relationship with things, but there was still a surface level that wasn’t convinced. I’d like to say that right then and there, I embraced a minimalist lifestyle and went forth only collecting objects that added value, but that isn’t what happened. We were given so many things, which is lovely and kind, but we weren’t able to accumulate with any meaning. Truthfully, I don’t think we would have been so purposeful even if given the chance. Despite our realizations, stuff still meant security. We needed stuff to define our identities. We needed stuff because that’s how it’s done. That’s how you make a home. And so we accumulated.
Stay tuned for Part 2, which I promise, actually talks about my process and experience building a WARDROBE.