Every Monday I post Real Life Minimalists, a profile of one of my readers in their own words. If you’d like to participate, click here for details.
This week, Ellen tells us how dealing with her grandmother’s possessions inspired her to embrace a more minimalist lifestyle.
My minimalist journey has slowly unfolded over the years, marked by a few distinct occurrences that have shifted my path away from the acquisition to deacquisition of stuff. As a child, I was constantly bothered by the piles of old magazines, paperwork, and junk mail that accumulated on every flat surface in my mom’s house. Looking back, I wonder how she managed to keep it together with six kids, much less to deal with excess clutter. At the time I was chronically frustrated and I couldn’t wait until I could move into my own place.
When I moved into my own apartment in my early twenties, I was so thrilled with having my own space to furnish and decorate that minimalism was the last thing on my mind. I did strive to keep my things organized, however, and cut back on junk mailings. When I married, my husband and I combined two apartments and I began working for a home furnishings retailer. Needless to say, stuff expanded rapidly and most of it I really didn’t like.
My minimalist breakthrough occurred two years ago when my grandmother passed away. She and my grandfather lived in the same house for over sixty years and she collected a lot of stuff. The stairs were impassible due to the boxes she could no longer carry into the attic. She was also the collector of family treasures and thus most of the items in the house had some kind of family significance. Before she died, she asked that we take everything in the house; she did not want things to be auctioned to the public. The burden of what she asked became apparent when we began unpacking the house—every closet, drawer, box, and cubby hole was packed full of trash. While the family treasures were carefully divided among family willing to take them, we were forced to resort to public auction to manage the piles and piles of excess belongings.
Dealing with my grandmother’s legacy transformed my attitude toward my own belongings. In 2008 we had began an extended transition process when my husband and I went back to graduate school. To date, we have moved four times in as many years. We are now preparing for a fifth move to a different region of the country where I will begin the last phase of training as an historian. We’re also downsizing from a three-bedroom home to 775 square foot apartment! In the last year, I have sorted and donated to local charities. We had a huge garage sale where we sold half our furniture and most of my husband’s CD collection (he uploaded all of his albums to digital storage). We purged our bookshelves and sold them online at Amazon.
As a historian, I appreciate a family’s careful stewardship of items like letters or diaries. They are the stuff my profession relies upon in order to craft our explorations of the past. These are items from my own life I am unwilling to part with—cards and letters from my grandmother and great-grandmother, diaries and journals I’ve kept since I was eight years old, and a few treasures from my childhood. I’m careful to distinguish between items that have little or no significance to who I am as a person, and those things that speak to my own history. That’s what I love best about the minimalist pursuit: it’s an individual expression, not a rote method.