The internet spawns a lot of insecurity. If I check my Yahoo email account, I have to run the gauntlet of photos of “Fabulously Wealthy Hot Star Poses in String Bikini Two Days After Giving Birth To Triplets!!!” On Facebook, my newsfeed is choked with the apparent awesomeness that is other people’s lives. (I love you, mommy-friends who post about how you’re about to commit double homicide. Kisses! Thanks for keeping it real.) People’s “likes” pop up and I click, thinking, “Aww! Kittens!” only to find that the FB newsfeed, that Modern Marvel of Misleading Succinctness, has omitted the very important word “sex” before “kittens” and whatever shred of self-esteem I once had is now shot. Not to mention whatever shred of respect I had for the “liker.”
However, the point here is not my insecurities. What I am wordily getting at is that I want to be really clear that I’m not laying down a gauntlet, I’m not issuing a challenge, and one of the very last things I have ever wanted in this world is to make another person insecure. This blog is an attempt to connect and to hold myself accountable. Any resemblance to any person is entirely coincidental unless it’s me. I’m knocking my own hypocrisy, my own weaknesses and mislaid intentions. I am confronting my own materialism, my own failure to think critically and act on those thoughts. My very own disconnect between my privileged and comfortable world and the very different world that is real for the 96% of humans who don’t get to live the way I do.
Remember The Neverending Story, starring uber-villain the Nothing? That thing was seriously scary. It represented every childhood fear rolled into one awful seething ball of nastiness, a force that transformed presence into absence, reality into oblivion. It was horrifying. I wonder how many of us children of the 80s never quite got over that one.
Funny that the Nothing emerged in the 80s, that era of bigness–big hair, big shoulderpads, big consumption without thought. Anything that could forever suck away your Umbros, Keds, and Michael Jackson tapes was sheer horror.
Well, suddenly the Nothing is looking kinda good to me. I could have used its help in my closet yesterday.
I haven’t always craved emptiness. I am a collector by nature, ever since my elementary school days of hoarding rocks and stamps and toy horses. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a child of the 80s, or a child at heart, or a child of the “first world,” but I love my stuff. Maybe it’s because I love stories, and the longer an object endures in this ever-changing world, the more imbued it is with significance.
But as I grow older, learn more about the world, and struggle to make sure I don’t mess up my kids too badly, I feel an increasing tension between what I say I believe and what I actually do.
Lately, my stuff has started to feel like junk. Heavy junk. Junk that weighs on me physically, mentally, spiritually.
I just finished reading 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, by Jen Hatmaker. Typically my reading tastes do not veer so far to the right of the religious spectrum. So hopefully that gives you some idea of how much the idea of this book struck me. It’s essentially the author’s often hilarious journal of her attempt to pare down seven areas of excess in her life, in order to better live out her faith. Faith, for me, is a very nebulous thing and a constant struggle, but at the heart of the book is an idea that I think any person of conscience, from any background, can appreciate: In our society, we have more than we need–obscenely so–while most of the world struggles along at the level of basic survival. The author spends one month on each area, eating only 7 foods the first month, wearing only 7 items of clothing the next month, and so on.
I love the idea of an experimental mutiny, not least because it sounds super-cool and makes me picture pirates in lab coats. But this book got me fired up to the point of craving lasting and sustainable change, and this desire for change resonates strongly with the work I do in my part time job as a professional organizer.
These three facts have been swirling around in my head lately:
1) Everything we own comes with a price tag: it costs money, takes up space, requires maintenance, and/or claims time or emotional energy.
2) We regularly use only about 20% of our stuff.
3) A U.S. family of four with an annual income of $35,000 is among the world’s wealthiest 4%.
So I am embarking on a project. I’m attempting to reform myself. I consider myself a “mustard-seed” kind of girl. I’m not always sure what I believe or why, and a truly good solid argument from any perspective is likely to convince me, or at least really make me think. But there are a few core beliefs in which I will never waver, the most important of which is this: I believe we are here to be good to one another, and that includes all the non-homo sapiens others, too. And I am increasingly convinced that I am not doing my full part.
So, I am beginning by focusing on my physical stuff, the objects with which I’ve surrounded myself. The junk that too often holds me back and walls me in. I’m not a pack rat or a hoarder by any stretch, but I’ve become very uncomfortable with my own hypocrisy in saying:
“I have nothing to wear”–when there is a woman with no coat huddled in a snowstorm;
“I need a pair of shoes to go with this outfit”–when the entire trajectory of a girl’s life just derailed because she doesn’t own shoes and therefore can’t attend school;
“I have to have ice cream right now“–when there is a dad watching his kids go to sleep hungry tonight;
“I really want the new season on DVD”–when there is a little boy who only wants a safe place to hide from his abuser.
My stuff is a barrier between me and the world. I’m not dissing you or your stuff. I’ve just realized that I personally am not good at handling my stuff, at not investing it with way more significance than I should. Too often I confuse wants and needs.
So, going on the Cardinal Rule of Downsizing–50% stays, 50% goes–I am attempting to cut the ties that bind me too tightly to my stuff. Over the past two days I’ve downsized from 21 to 11 pairs of shoes and 124 to 62 items of clothing. I plan to move on to accessories, books, whatever else my compulsive little mind can neatly categorize.
Fashionistas, I am not hatin’ on your shoe collections. I do not want you to feel guilty about your cute outfits. This is all about me–in a good way. I’m trying to carve out some breathing space so I can move on to tackling the really big stuff.
But I would love to know what you think. And I would love to know that I am not alone in feeling this troubling disconnect. I would also appreciate knowing if you think I’ve gone off the deep end at any point. Most of all I want to open a dialogue, to get a conversation going.
I will close for now with a note of apology to Ernest Hemingway:
Dear Mr. Hemingway,
I am sorry for making fun of your writing style. I still do not like bullfights. And I still think that your female characters are a little too much like guys with boobs. But you were so, so right about this downsizing stuff. About paring away the unessential, burning away the dross until what’s left shines bright and clear. I obsess over this in my own writing. But I can’t neglect the fact that with every breath, I’m writing my life on this earth, and this matters. I should be spending more time polishing myself than I do my writing. I may never publish a word. But people will see what I do, and hear the words I say. I realize that this note is already longer than most of your books, so I will close with my apologies and regards. Thanks for the icebergs.
One thought on “Breathing Space”
You are not alone in feeling this troubling disconnect. Thank you for being brave enough to tackle wants vs. needs, and for sharing your light as the dross burns away. I’m thankful to be on this journey with you.
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