the burden of ownership : how minimalism brings me freedom
I am packing again. I am back on the road.
There is not much left to pack these days. My Lamy fountain pen which I wear hooked onto my citrine crystal, the only piece of jewellery I own. Doc Marten steel toed work boots and running shoes. Jeans, a few ratty black t-shirts, various hand-me-down jumpers with elbow patches. Button up shirts and button up shirt dresses in black and white. Technology: laptop, camera, phone, a tangle of chargers. A portable tea strainer and tea leaves. Notebook, index cards, ink cartridges, post-it notes for marking books, glue and scissors.
There are the books. I don't own many by the typical standards (about 30), though in terms of volume they are about equal to everything else. I accumulate them almost without realising. Whenever I pack to leave somewhere, I find I have acquired more books than I can lift. I try to give them away or donate them and still can never keep up. Sooner or later, I will cave and switch to a Kindle. For now, I keep my favourites, with their liberal coating of marginalia, faded covers and coffee stains.
Everything is functional, practical, chosen with care. It has to be or it gets destroyed fast.
I like the simplicity.
I like dressing in plain black and white clothes. I like wearing no makeup except eyeliner and no adornments except my crystal. I like getting on a train, carrying everything on my back, not needing to check-in luggage. I like making loose leaf tea in whatever vessel is available. I like not having to worry about contracts, rent, mortgage, schedules, commitments.
There is, however, the stuff I have left behind at people's houses. The plants, prom dress and filled notebooks at my parents' house. The elderly pet mouse (Maude) and spare computer at Chapman's house. And so on. The guilt is horrible. My scattered trail of stuff is a strange weight on my shoulders. Even when I tell people to throw it if they wish, there remains a tenuous link. It would be nice to bring Maude with me. As much as she likes napping in sleeves, I don't think she would find it much fun.
Ownership is a burden.
It goes beyond draining time, money and space. On a mental level, it is tiring. Humans are not built for it, and no other creature accumulates stuff in the same way. Its absence is more notable than its presence.
Tyler from Fight Club put it best when he said the things you own end up owning you. This manifests in the anxiety when we pat our pocket and fail to feel the familiar lump of a phone. The frenzied swivel when someone brushes our bag in a crowd. The anger when a plate gets dropped or a shirt tears. It feels like a personal attack when something breaks, is stolen or lost. That's mine we hiss, like a toddler seeing their favourite crayon snatched away.
We keep a mental scorecard of everything we have lent to someone, measuring their trustworthiness by how soon they return it. Benjamin Franklin once endeared himself to a rival by borrowing a book and then returning it undamaged a few days later. After all, anyone who does that must be a good person. Anyone who understand the sanctity of our stuff must be a worthy friend who respects us.
In Don't Sleep, There are Snakes Daniel Everett describes how the Piraha tribe in the Amazon forest see possessions.
When a woman needs a basket to carry something, she weaves a temporary one out of grasses. She has the skills and the materials to make a lasting one, yet chooses not to. When Everett brings a man to teach the Piraha how to make canoes, they refuse to although it would make their lives easier. Even their most vital hunting tools are left lying around in the damp where children can play with them. Essentially, the Piraha know that their knowledge, capabilities and community are what actually enable them to survive in the brutal jungle. They have no concept in their language or culture of a time other than the present, and so do not need mementoes from the past or investments for the future.
I think we would do well to learn from them. To see the value in our internal lives, in the weightless knowledge, memories or ideas we carry. Once you get those right, most physical possessions become superfluous. When you are inspired and driven to create, the equipment you use matters very little. When you are healthy and confident, it doesn't matter what you wear - everything looks good. When you have something to think about or someone interesting to talk to, there is no need for anything to do as such; just being is okay.
I truly cannot comprehend how it would feel to have a house, car, furniture, diamond jewellery, etc. Even more so, I cannot imagine how it would feel to crave the presence of these things. To hunger for a bigger home, faster car, designer furniture, and so on. When I try to, the closest sensation I achieve is a sort of appreciation, like I feel for good art. It was not always this way.
My relationship to my possessions could not have changed more in the last year.
At the start of 2016, I was caught in the loop of obsessive shopping and hoarding. I spent my evenings making wishlists and browsing online stores. The process was emotional, not rational.
I have a theory that shopping ignites some sort of primal hunting instinct in us. Witness the way Black Friday shoppers fight each other for 'bargains.' The glazed, darting eyes of women buying shoes. The neuroticism surrounding coupons, designer outlets and celebrity collaborations.
After all, shopping (as opposed to 'buying stuff') is not about meeting a real need. It is about quenching some deeper sort of discomfort. I used to buy clothes when I felt insecure, make-up when I felt ugly, stationary when I felt unproductive, and so on. These days, I have mostly reprogrammed the shopping twitch. When I feel insecure, I call someone. When I imagine I need a new outfit for an event, I remind myself of Thoreau's words: beware of all enterprises which require new clothes, and not a new wearer of clothes. And also: the cost of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.
My real, long-term goal is to live the life I want to by doing what I love as a career. To not exchange more life than is absolutely necessary to support me. This requires divorcing my contentment from any particular income, location or lifestyle. You could describe my way of living as nomadic or location independent, but I prefer to call it 'untethered.' It necessitates a focus on my mind and what I can do with it.