making space

Osaka apartment  by Shimpei Oda

Osaka apartment by Shimpei Oda

Spring cleaning has brought little change to my home.  Yes, "clean closet" and "book purge" are on my to-do list most days, but they never seem like a priority until I've already begun cleaning and begin to wonder how I managed to live with so much stuff around me this whole time.  

Like anyone who came of age during the advent of "Black Friday" and "BOGO" (as well as "McMansions" and the SUVs that live there), I've always been attracted to that loaded new dogma, minimalism.  It's a word I've avoided, preferring to say that I minimize, or simplify, primarily in the wardrobe department: dark, solid neutrals only.  Despite my inclinations to keep all scraps of artwork and fragments of essays, as well as concert programs, cards, gifts, and anything I purchased at a discount, there is an undeniable attraction to pale, spacious homes and the ethereal beings – free of undue sentiment – who inhabit them.  Maybe growing up with lots of things, people, and art has fostered my high-minded desire for simplicity. 

There is no denying that minimalism echoes the asceticism of the morally upright: imagine cloistered nuns who spend their entire lives baking communion wafers and sewing vestments for the church (and don't forget that, as a child in a Catholic school, joining a religious order was lauded as my best chance of achieving sainthood).  All forms of self-denial are associated with an ethical commitment that long predates the Puritans; anything from silence and chastity to regular exercise and dietary restrictions is, at least in the U.S., something to aspire to, and, most often, a luxury. 

We all want less, though.  We eagerly anticipate days off from work, unplanned free evenings, and "staycations", which offer us literally nothing new but available time. 

Despite my admiration of minimalists, I am sometimes disconcerted when I read their personal accounts.  In Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism, author Fumio Sasaki describes a day in his life as a minimalist: waking with the sun, making breakfast and cleaning up afterward, meditating, work, bathing, cleaning, stretching.  It seems like nothing, really, and my long-harbored cravings for adventure and fullness beckon me back to excess.  But in a time when we have such shallow inner journeys, such brief moments for reflection, isn't simple nothing an adventure of great value?

In a moment of unusual clarity and self-preservation, I recently forsook the consistency of my full-time job (something much sought-after by artists who can tolerate one) to make space in my life, not knowing yet what would fill it.  It's not as though I'm suddenly unemployed: some dozen hours per week here or there, weekend music, art projects always arising, and a recent, all-consuming obsession with houseplants.  There are things occupying my time, for certain, but it seems I had completely forgotten the joy and refreshment of simply sitting in a café, or sleeping in a few moments later.  The opportunity to say yes to invitations – or no, simply to cultivate some stillness.

Thousands of people have said it: when you remove the things that don't matter, the truly important things have a place to manifest.  I don't think anyone would disagree.  The trouble is the so-called important things – work, security, occupying ourselves, not "wasting" time – aren't really that important.  Those of us with the great privilege of choosing ourselves ought seriously to consider chucking it all for the lives we read about: the ones that seems so incomprehensibly plain. 

Fumio Sasaki wrote, "minimalists are people who know what's truly necessary for them versus what they may want for the sake of appearance, and they're not afraid to cut down on everything in the second category."  What appearances have we been keeping up recently?  Following trends?  Trying to impress?  Staying loyal to something that no longer matters, or to an old vision of ourselves? 

It is a common saying in minimal circles: I say no to things not because I am busy, but because I don't want to be busy.  We always seek fulfillment with more things and more projects, more work, more noise.  Perhaps it's been there all along, hidden by our own doing, waiting for clarity to emerge.