My son looked at me and said, “Mom, I feel like I need a present.” My initial instinct was to refuse. I’ve been refusing gifts for years. Presents are for birthdays and Christmas. Everything else can wait!
But as I left that afternoon, my heart dropped. He’s such a good boy. He does deserve a present. He had lost so much.
I went to Target and loaded up my cart. To be fair, I got a box for each of my children and filled it with a few toys, a stuffed animal, and a t-shirt. I grabbed my husband’s favorite magazine and got some new flip-flops for myself. I deserved a present, too. Gifts for everyone! My cart was a mountain of Minions, ninjas, and princesses.
I rolled up to the line feeling pretty good, but when the man behind me commented, “You sure gotta lotta toys in that cart,” I burst into tears. Right there at the checkout. The ugly cry.
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Have you seen articles about minimalism? The ones that say living with less will bring you more joy? Have you ever heard someone say they just want to get rid of everything and start fresh? Give it all away and make a drastic change?
Decluttering. Minimalism. Living with less in order to enjoy life more.
The Cost of Clutter
Accumulating mass amounts of stuff that needs to be organized and decluttered seems to fall squarely on the middle class. The wildly popular decluttering phenomenon and, more recently, choosing to become a “minimalist” has middle class Americans taking control of the items that creep and crash into our lives.
We (the middle class) are fortunate to be able to collect these things. To be able to afford them. It’s a privilege. “For people who are not so well off, the idea of opting to have even less is not really an option,” Land points out in this New York Times article, The Class Politics of Decluttering.
However, much of what the middle class is able to afford is disposable. We buy what we need, what we want, and what we can afford to furnish our homes knowing that it will not last. It’s all replaceable. Laminated wood furniture is affordable, but will only last a few years. Books and plastic toys last through one child, maybe two, before they are broken and worn down. “Affordable” appliances are made to last only five or six years. As we collect more and more it builds up.
I recently published this article about our homeschool room and how to manage the mess. Strangely, it was published just days before we lost it all. The following week I was promoting a post about furniture and toys that were all gone. It was surreal.
Our family is fortunate to sit squarely in the middle. We are far from minimalists. But we have worked hard to get out (and stay out) of the debt that consumes so many middle class Americans. We are frugal but not to a fault. We are tenuously comfortable. We have the choice to build up clutter. And I’ll admit – I love the feeling of organizing and decluttering to make our house feel fresh and easy again.
We were very lucky. Until the day we were not.
My son asked me for a present the day we returned home for the first time after the hurricane. He had spent the past two weeks listening in on conversations that were too grown-up for his six-year-old ears. Conversations about money and storms, insurance and finding a place to live. He saw what happened to our house – It was destroyed. He saw soggy piles of his own books and toys in a wheelbarrow waiting to be shoveled into a dumpster. He saw his bed covered in moldy dinosaur sheets, clothes in drawers full of black water, and marks on the walls where they would be cut away…
If you’ve been following our story, you know that our family has suffered a catastrophic loss. I joke that we’ve been forced into minimalism. Trendy against our will.
The Things that Matter
Consumerism has become such an evil term. You put too much value into things. Shame, shame. People are what is important. But let me tell you: things are important, too.
We’d been living there for twelve years. I picked out every piece of furniture. I made a place for every single toy. Every item of clothing. Every book. I can walk through the house in my mind and remember where everything was. Every color. Every texture. Every smell.
I’m not ashamed to say that those things are important to me. To all of us. Losing toys and games, books and bedding, furniture I loved and furniture I hated – it all carries weight.
Yes, these things are replaceable, and in time they will be replaced. But the time spent choosing. The work spent repairing and replacing and repainting. The energy spent fretting over each little purchase for twelve years – the emotional investment. That cannot be replaced.
Privilege in Control
Minimalists tout a lifestyle free of extras. No noisy plastic toys. Less makeup and hair products. Let go of those collections. Minimize your clothes closet. Less collectibles, more space! They say freedom from clutter will allow us to enjoy life more.
I disagree. Putting value in things, in comfort, does not lessen the value we put on people. It does not lessen the value we put on experiences.
People who choose minimalism are seeking comfort. Comfort in control. Minimalism, at its core, is about controlling your environment. Control is a privilege.
We are all consumers. Gathering the few or many things that bring joy into our lives. Whether you value a minimalist lifestyle or are forced into it, we are all just searching for comfort. There’s no shame in that.