Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A little too much minimalism

Yesterday on NPR’s On Point, I heard authors Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, founders of the website theminimalists.com, discuss the process that transformed them from people who actively pursued material gain to people devoted to a lifelong process of stripping down. One of them described an experiment in which he packed everything he owned into boxes, as if he was moving, although he wasn’t. Then he unpacked things only as he needed them, in order to find out what objects he really had use for in the course of a day, a week or a month.

We’re doing that experiment too, only not so much as an experiment in minimalism as just because it’s easier for the time being. When we moved here in spring of 2011, we thought we might be able to stay only a year; it turned into longer, but we still haven’t bothered to unpack all the boxes in the garage. In the past 20 months, we’ve done just what the minimalist author described: unpacked only what we needed. And so we too can tell what objects matter most to us.

Of course, 20 months with a family of four makes for a fairly broad range of material needs, or at least material uses. Dishes and kitchen appliances were unpacked within hours of the move; clothes and linens too. Over the next several weeks, the kids brought out games and books and craft supplies. Now that we’ve been here well over a year, any decorations we own for any particular holiday have been uncovered, and so has just about all of our athletic equipment and computer accessories. Last Labor Day weekend, we unearthed the lobster steamer and lobster crackers for the first time since moving.

So in a way, the author is right; this is a great way to see what you really need. When we do move again, we’ll have to take a very critical look at anything that has stayed boxed all this time. The only problem is that there’s one large category of items we never unpacked but that I still can’t think of as superfluous: sentimental objects. We don’t have a single wedding photo in our current house; it didn’t seem worth unwrapping them from their protective casing. In fact, we don’t have any framed photos at all here, except for the kids’ school photos, taken earlier this fall. Last summer I pulled out a few vases, but we have other knickknacks – some heirlooms passed down, some collectibles from our travels, others wedding gifts – that we haven’t bothered to pull out.

And for me, that’s a source of struggle when I contemplate the issue of minimalism. Doing without piles of, say, cloth placemats in different patterns, or CDs no one listens to, or old high school notebooks, or any of the other things that people typically accumulate in their attics or basements is definitely a positive thing. But not having any family photos around? That seems sort of sad.

So next time we move, we might try the same thing, but this time I’m determined to find that box of wedding photos and other framed pictures and unpack that box early on. Minimalism is good, but living without sentimental objects seems a little too abstemious. I miss our photos and collectibles, and I look forward to seeing them again, whenever the next round of unpacking occurs.


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