I feel like lately I’ve become aware of a journey towards minimalism I seem to have been on for the last few years. When we moved to China, we came in four suitcases. I have a vivid memory of standing in the spare room at my in-laws’ house, all my clothes piled on the bed in front of me, and a seemingly tiny suitcase that was the whole of the allotted space I had for things I wanted to bring with me. I picked up each piece of clothing and passed it through a rigorous examination – did it fit well? Could I wear it in humidity without getting pit stains (gross, I know)? Could I wear it in hot weather without any layering at all? Did it look cute all on its own? Only the ones that passed every test were allowed into the suitcase. I don’t remember the exact number of clothes I took with me, but I wanna say I brought about seven or so shirts with me.
Well, this last month, I was back in that same bedroom at my in-laws’ house, with that same pile of clothing – all the rejects that have been sitting in their garage for the last three years. Along with our entire household of stuff we left behind. A bed, a washer and dryer, a TV, kitchen appliances, sports equipment, craft stuff, a sewing machine, pots and pans, a telescope, shoes, suitcases, a surfboard, on and on and on it went. And I found myself asking why on earth do we have all this stuff?! And why did we decide to keep it all?!
I mean, I know why. We didn’t know if we’d be in China any more than a year. It didn’t feel very sensible to get rid of almost everything we owned if we’d just need to start a new household again in a year. But we’ve been in China three years now and we finally made a trip back to Terry’s parents house. We knew it was time to clean it out and go through everything. I wasn’t looking forward to the process, but I was looking forward to ridding myself of a ton of stuff.
And that gave me a lot of pause. Why was I ready to get rid of all that stuff now? I could say it’s because we’re staying in China longer, but the reality of expat life is that we just have no idea when we’ll move back to the US. Most of the time you sign a contract for a year at a time. Maybe three years. But for now, we’re looking at probably another year to start with. It could very well be longer than that, but I’m in that same position where I’m wondering if I’ll need to be starting a household all over again in a year. And yet I didn’t want to hang on to most of that stuff.
I think a lot of it has to do with a change of mindset I found I needed to make when we moved to China. Everything I purchase I try to take a good hard look at before allowing into my home. Because odds are pretty good I’ll have to get rid of it in a year or two or three or whatever when we move back to the US. We’ll likely move home again in suitcases, so buying a ton of excess items doesn’t really make sense. So everything that comes home with us has to be something I either care about enough to want to make room for in a suitcase, or care little enough about that I won’t care if I have to throw it out.
In the last year or so I feel like I keep coming across books or articles or blog posts on minimalism. I didn’t really pay it much mind at first, but lately I feel like the universe is trying to send me a message. There was that wildly popular Kon Mari book that I listened to on audio while Terry was unemployed (which conveniently meant he listened to it too – he brought all his clothes up to the living room and went through the pile to check for that spark of joy before we even finished listening, haha). There were all those blog posts I stumbled upon about capsule wardrobes and thriving on less clothes. There was the podcast I listened to on a totally different subject that brought up a few things about minimalism. And there was the book that I decided to get after hopping from that podcast to a blog all about minimalism.
It was perfect timing really. I was reading the start of the book on the day I was packing for our summer trip to the US. We’ve got kind of a funky living arrangement for the summer – we’re not finding permanent housing in Shanghai until September (for reasons I won’t get into now), so we booked an airbnb apartment in Shanghai for June and another for August. We’re in the States for July. We left most of our stuff in the spare bedroom at a friend’s house in southern China, and brought only a few suitcases with us to Shanghai. Which means this summer I boxed up my entire household (which always makes me think I have too much stuff), packed suitcases to take to Shanghai, unpacked those suitcases upon arrival, repacked them to come to the States, unpacked them at my in-laws’ house, repacked them to go to the family reunion in Tahoe, unpacked them upon arrival, repacked them to go visit my family, unpacked them upon arrival, repacked them to come back to Shanghai, and unpacked them upon arrival. And we’ll still need to repack them once we find permanent housing, unpack them, ship the rest of our stuff up to Shanghai, and unpack all of that.
And every time I’m packing and unpacking, I’m wishing I had less. Not nothing. I need or love or want a lot of my stuff. But I’m bending towards the idea of owning less. Of finding enough for myself. Of being conscious of the idea that there is such a thing as enough.
This book I was reading talked a lot about figuring out your reasons for wanting to move towards minimalism, and that it’s not an ends unto itself – it is the means to living the life you want, unburdened by too much stuff. And that makes so much sense to me. Consciously owning less stuff means you spend less of your precious time researching what to buy, repairing things that break, organizing your overflowing drawers and closets, picking it all up off the floor every night, and combing through your garage to make some sort of order to all the dust-covered stuff. Instead you can use that time doing the things that are more important to you, like squish your cute baby’s cheeks and see if you can get him to giggle, or write a book, or be in a play, or whatever it is. And you can stop using your energy to keep up with everyone around you and channel that energy towards something better – helping people in your community, doing some good in the world around you.
And the same kind of ideas applies to things like houses and cars too. We’ve lived the last few years in a smallish apartment and I haven’t driven a car in three years, minus our annual trips to the US (thank you, crazy China driving). And you know what? It’s been fine. Obviously I’ve been living in a city where I could walk to most places I need – that’s not really feasible in most places in the US, but I find myself excited to be in a city with great public transportation that makes owning a car completely unnecessary.
And houses. Can I just be really honest for a minute here? I grew up thinking I’d own a nice home one day, with a big yard and a few bedrooms and maybe a basement. There’s nothing wrong with that. At all. But since moving abroad, I’ve started to see that there are other options I never even realized. Like – I don’t have to buy a house. It’s not a requirement, there’s no law. Even if everyone else is doing it. I’d like to own a house someday but you know what? I want something small. Something that doesn’t take forever to clean. Something that doesn’t swallow up my weekends and summers. Something that doesn’t consume my mental energy. Something that’s cozy enough that the whole family can be in close-ish quarters. I don’t have to go with that house I always dreamed of growing up. Because the last few years have made me wonder if it would be everything I always thought it would. And I don’t think it would. Which works out really great, since it looks like we’ll continue living in a small apartment, without a car, for at least the foreseeable future. ? But I’m embracing that.
We got rid of a ton of stuff last month. There are a lot of things we decided to keep, for now. Like I said, I’m not just getting rid of stuff just for the sake of getting rid of it. But we donated boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff that no longer fit who we are or what we need.
And maybe next year, I can spend the first week of my vacation doing more than just going through piles and piles of stuff. ?