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Minimalist Mentality: The Virtues of Living with Less

The view from my new front porch.
The view from my new front porch.

The kitchen of the new house I’m moving to just outside State College, Pennsylvania could fit in the bathroom of my current home. I assure you, this is not an exaggeration. But instead of feeling depressed by the prospect and eventual reality of a small home, I feel excited.

We are in the midst of separating, Serge and I, with each of us making major decisions about the shape our new lives will take. It is scary but liberating, and I suspect he feels the same way I do. The opportunity for a fresh start without drama while still mourning the life we spent ten years building. It’s a messy, difficult, intensely painful time. And yet I am slowly learning to enjoy the new, solid relationship we are building with each other as we navigate raising our children together while not together.

Probably the biggest decision we’ve each had to make this past month is where we’re going to live. We’d like to be close, of course, because we’ll be sharing custody of our children, but I don’t think we want to be neighbors. Eventually, maybe, but for now we need a little bit of a distance buffer, I think. The current plan has us close, but each residing in our own village. Yeah, I said village. That’s the way it works out here in the Pennsylvania countryside. Villages. It’s quaint like that.

My “village” is five minutes from Penn State, which I like, as I am feeling pretty isolated out here in Hublersburg, where I currently live. Serge is moving a little farther out from State College than me, but he’s in a great little area as well. Shops, pubs, and restaurants all within walking distance of his home. Country life with a citified feel. He has used the term “vibrant community” so much in the past few weeks I have threatened to hurt him — just like old times!

The upcoming move means a drastic reduction in space for both of us. Which means I’ve got to start deciding what to 86 from my life. I used to be the kind of person who clings to keepsakes and mementos, but after a house fire a few years ago destroyed nearly everything I’d saved in my attic, I’ve let all that go. Clutter brings me down, feels suffocating. Serge is someone who likes to surround himself with mementos and keepsakes, little things collected over time and displayed around the house. Which means our marriage was a constant battle over counter and wall space. His decorating style often ended up making me feel like I had stumbled into an Applebee’s. But he isn’t the only one to blame for our current clutter. When we first moved into the roomy farmhouse I live in now, I felt compelled to buy things to fill all the spaces with things I didn’t need, things I still don’t need. Things I no longer want.

I read an article the other day over on Slate about two minimalist bloggers who write extensively about living with less. One of them recounts how it started for him when he asked himself this question: What if you removed one material possession — just one — from your life each day for a month? What would happen?

“The result: I unloaded way more than 30 items in the first 30 days. It became a kind of personal challenge, discovering what I could get rid of, what I could get out of my way, how many unneeded things I could remove from my hoard. I searched my rooms and closets, cabinets and hallways, car and office, rummaging around for items to part with, retaining only the things I needed.

Pondering each artifact in my apartment, I’d ask simple questions like, Does this thing add value to my life? I learned that once you gain momentum, once you feel the benefits of removing the clutter from your life, embracing minimalism gets easier by the day. The more you do it, the freer and happier and lighter you feel, the more you want to throw overboard. A few shirts leads to half a closet. A few DVDs leads to deep-sixing almost an entire library of discs. A few decorative items leads to junk drawers who shed their adjective. It’s a beautiful cycle. The more action you take, the more you want to take action.”

I’m excited to take action. And I’m not just talking about organizing stuff. I want it gone. This last month before I move I’d like to ask myself this question over and over again: Does this thing add value to my life?

One of the minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn, talks about how society would have you believe that there is a war being waged between classic hoarders (dead cats sandwiched between decades-old newspapers) and folks who have color-coded bins and drawers for their crap. But Millburn says the two sides are actually working together to achieve the same thing: accumulating more crap. Dead cat in newspaper hoarder or organized hoarder, I want no part in any of it. I don’t want to be a slave to my belongings, I want everything in my new home to have a purpose. If it doesn’t, it’s gone.

“When I got rid of the majority of my possessions, I was compelled to ask questions I wasn’t prepared for: When did I give so much meaning to material possessions? What is truly important in life? Why am I discontented? Who is the person I want to become? How will I define my own success?”

The answers to these questions are what I’m looking for this month as I pack my things, say goodbye to my life as I know it and make the move into my first home as a single mom.

Wish me luck.

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