Minimalist Dreams, Pack Rat Tendencies

I really want to be a minimalist. Maybe.

My first hurdle to minimalism is, I’m too frenetic to sit down and study up on what minimalism really means and how to achieve it. So maybe I don’t even really want to be a minimalist in the purest sense of the word. But I know I want to simplify my home and therefore, in a way, my life.

But the second hurdle is, I’m a pack rat by nature. I come from a long line of pack rats on my mom’s side. There was my great-grandma, who kept figurines and trinkets and years and years of old newspapers (Side story: during the estate sale after her death, I was just old enough to know who JFK was when I watched in silent indignation as my grandma simply gave away her mother’s papers covering the assassination! How I wish I’d been bold enough to speak up!). There is my grandpa, who files every little random nut, screw and bolt he finds into neat shelves of jars, meticulously organized by type, length, and material. And then there’s my mother, under whom I involuntarily learned – and then honed – my pack rat ways.

We were raised to save almost all school papers, and when we were old enough we were tasked with curating our own yearly boxes (old shirt boxes from Penney’s, because though she was a pack rat, she was also frugal). We were instructed to save clothing tags after we cut them off for at least one wash/wear cycle, just in case. I saved receipts for packs of gum, I knew not why. By the time I was a teen, the “damage” was done. When I wanted to banish my little girl’s menagerie of ceramic animal figurines from my dresser-top, I didn’t thoughtlessly toss them into the donation box like I assume normal kids would do. I carefully wrapped each piece, numbered each bundle with a piece of masking tape, wrote a numbered list describing each wrapped bundle, and then packed the whole kit ‘n caboodle into a box for the attic. What thirteen-year-old creates a storage inventory list?!

I did have my forays into shedding excess material possessions, which I now look back on wracked with regret. Why did I sell all of my Goosebumps books en masse on e-Bay for a measly $10? Man, I wish I had that Metallica concert shirt from that time I really liked Metallica! Did I really donate all of my Troll dolls? WHAT?!

A lot of those sheddings were driven by finances – I was a teenager, and then a college student, who didn’t work during the school year, so why not just sell some of my childhood things to make some pocket cash? Sometimes I took photos of items before I got rid of them; I read somewhere that was a good way to remember an object without having it take up space. But mostly, I just purged, and then years later I would wonder what I was thinking. I have to imagine that I put some thought into it every time I got rid of something, and I guess at that age it was easy to talk myself into believing I wouldn’t miss the thing. It was uncomplicated to hold a t-shirt from an elementary school class trip and think “Yeah in twenty years I’m definitely not going to care about this!” Oh, Mt. Misery camping trip t-shirt, why did I forsake you?

But despite these pangs of nostalgia, I mostly feel that it was all for the best. If I really kept all of those things for all of these years, my attic and closets would be over-flowing. And they kind of already are…without all those Troll dolls. I’ve saved enough relics from my youth to have an interesting sampling to show my children and grand-children someday. And I don’t have to worry about storing mountains of stuff that I would never take out of the boxes anyway. So, OK, I’ve talked myself down from the ledge formed out of the memories I’ve given away. Now what?

Well, I’m doing what every woman says she’s going to do – not be like their mother. Though my mom keeps her pack rat-edness very tidy, I still notice the spare blankets that have never seen the light of day or the chilly shoulders of a house-guest. So I make a concerted effort to go through purging sprees because I’m determined to not have a closet full of old jackets I haven’t worn in years. I have a constant Goodwill pile ebbing and flowing in a corner of our house, and I try to think very carefully about each item I’m parting with. Now that I have a daughter, is this something of value I want to pass to her? Is it something interesting I’ll want to show her someday or reminisce about myself? Or is it just another kitchen gadget I asked for and received for Christmas, only to never be used, à la electric fondue pot. Only occasionally do I have a moment of panic at donation time. Most recently I snatched a mini crepe pan (that I haven’t used in two years) out of the box of items to be donated, and another time I almost BOUGHT BACK four pretty juice glasses that I had donated previously.

These roundups and donation sprees are refreshing, freeing, and terrifying.

“I mean I’m probably going to make biscuits one day, so I really should keep these biscuit cutters. And besides, I can use them to trace circles.”

“What if I need to dress up as a devil for Halloween? I’m going to need this red tank top. It’s also good for Phillies games, you know, under a jersey.”

“I really should have three cheese knives because I might have a party one day where I’ll want to serve various cheeses of varying compositions, and certainly the same knife cannot be used for all the cheeses!”

These are the kinds of justifications a pack rat – particularly a pack rat who likes feeling prepared – makes when faced with the proposition of minimalism. Sure, I might not have used this thing in years, or at all, but I MIGHT use it, and if a time comes when I need to make a traditional English layered trifle well dammit I’m going to be ready for it!

I’m only slightly better at pruning my wardrobe than I am at my kitchen gear. I have been known to stretch the “if you haven’t worn it in a year” maxim, especially if the item was a steal, or totally works if I ever need to go to a gentlewoman’s brunch immediately followed by an 80’s rave. But in general, I’m good and dump a trash bag’s worth of clothes at least twice a year. I’m not even sure how I get that many clothes to begin with. I’ve partially closed this wasteful loop by shopping almost exclusively at Goodwill for day-to-day stuff, so I buy for cheap and then donate back for the tax breaks.

All of that sums up where I stand right now, and why I don’t think I will ever truly embrace minimalism. Sure, it felt good last year to edit down the knick-knacks on display in my living room; not because I felt some weightless feng-shui energy borne out of removing psychological clutter, but mostly because now it’s easier to dust everything. I actually kinda, sorta LIKE all my stuff. I like looking at the baby photo of our daughter, smelling the lilac Yankee candle, and fingering the hand-carved Tiki from a Hawaiian vacation when I pick each item up to dust underneath it. I like being able to wear something different every day for three weeks, and am OK with having a canyon collection as opposed to a capsule collection.

But I also like getting rid of stuff from time to time, and avoiding unruly piles of papers, or things that don’t have a place. I like keeping a critical eye on myself. This means sometimes talking myself out of that antique Pyrex bowl at the thrift store that I really don’t need, and then other times allowing myself to come home with that mid-century tarnished silver tea tray because I think it’s just so cool looking and I’ll definitely, definitely find a use for it!

Maybe what I’m all about is relative minimalism. I won’t achieve true minimalist status like guru so-and-so (I don’t know any minimalist gurus), but I also know I won’t let my stuff rule my life. I’ll be thoughtful about what I bring into the house, most of the time, and my aversion to clutter will assure my inherited pack rat nature never plays with the boundaries of hoarding. I think if I’m taking steps in that direction, and live more minimally relative to how I was living before, that is commendable. And when I see that other people/moms/women can experience the same self-doubt about their minimalism, I think that relative minimalism is a very comforting concept.

Where do you fall on the minimalist spectrum? Or phrased another way: how many spatulas do you have? I have four.



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