the empty container.

this morning my husband sent me this piece by leo babauta called the empty container. it’s something that we’ve been talking a lot about over the past few months: minimizing the amount of stuff that we have and getting down to what we really want. it seems to be on a lot of people’s minds lately. there is a sort of minimalist aesthetic that seems to be in fashion right now. call it a lasting “mad men effect” or the result of the recession, but there is definitely a modernist, less is more attitude going around.

my husband and i have been going through a big shift as far as our home is concerned. it has a lot to do with the shock of baby proofing and it also has to do with getting older. we’re both at the point where we’ve lived enough to have learned that quality far outweighs quantity.  and yet, clearing out our closets and cabinets and rooms has been difficult. i’ve had the strange experience of being turned away from thrift stores. i’ve been denied by used clothing shops and ebay alike for my ultra snappy clothes. this has been a big eye opener in and of itself. try spending hours, days sorting through your things, deciding to part with some and taking the time to haul this down to the local thrift, only to be told that your junk is not good enough for the goodwill. then, try hauling it all the way back home. if you ever want something to detract you from shopping, i suggest trying to sell your used clothing or even trying to donate any sort of furniture or baby goods. it is a sobering (if not humiliating) experience.

when my husband and i met we were both in our mid-thirties and had well established collections of…stuff. we were also both complete nostalgia junkies and long time thrift store pickers with weaknesses for antiques. our styles weren’t the same: his art deco meets 1950’s bordering on rockabilly and mine southwest meets abandoned new england greenhouse bordering on shabby chic. i also moved into my husband’s house, which is a house that has been in his family since the 1940’s. not only did i have to try to work my stuff in with my husband’s, i also had his great-grandparents and grandparents stuff to contend with. not only have there been compromises (he let go of some tiki bar ware and i let go of some chalky finish painted stuff), but there’s also been the guilt associated with getting rid of family heirlooms. my husband sometimes has to ask himself if he wants to live in a house filled with his own things, or someone else’s. he has slowly been moving more and more things into storage (for our dear son to sort through one day).

for me, the amassing of stuff is cyclical. i’ve moved more times than i can count, and have had to let go of most of my belongings more than once in favor of new horizons. in my late 20’s i made a conscious decision to stop buying things and to clean out much of the clutter in my life. this proved very difficult, but it was an interesting experiment. several years later i have a similar mindset, doing my best to not buy things that aren’t essential and trying to let go of what i have that is not important. the main question to ask is, “do i really need this” and if not, “do i really love this?” and if so, “what for?”

for both of us, this has been a process. cleaning out my closet took several passes. i read about a woman who turned around all of the hangers in her closet, and only turned the hangers back around on the clothes as they were worn. she was shocked to find that about 75% of the things in her closet were untouched. i believe this to be true of most of us. asking myself, “do i wear this?” and “when?” and also, “why do i love this?” was crucial. often times things i wanted to keep had memory attached or some positive feeling, like i had worn it to some event, or had lost weight to get into it, or had scored it in some ridiculously cheap way. at first i moved the things that i wanted to keep for sentimental reasons into a separate area. then i moved them into a bag. then, i tried to sell them. i have to admit it hurt a little to be turned down for the things that were so difficult for me to part with. i had to put those things aside for a while, but eventually i was able to donate them. and to be honest, i don’t even remember what many of them were. cleaning out my kitchen cabinets felt like losing physical weight. throwing away and donating things that were not useful or even beautiful that only took up space was really freeing.

the real test came a few weeks ago when we had carpeting installed in our home. we decided to compromise style for function on behalf of our nearly walking son, and said goodbye (for now) to our cold and very hard hardwood floors. this meant that we had to move essentially everything out of our house, even our closets. this was so eye opening, because once everything was out, we realized how little of it we needed or wanted back inside.

my advice to you, should you find yourself in a similar position, is to start small. the same questions apply to all rooms. “do i use this?” and “when?” and “why do i love this?” are all good questions. i started with my son’s room, because children tend to have it pretty dialed in. their clothes tend to be functional, comfortable, well made, and they only wear them until they outgrow them. they are clear about what toys they love because those are the same ones they go for every day. i have a lot to learn from my son in this regard. he is my baby minimalist.



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