So Much Spark! So Much Joy! A Collector's Take on Minimalism

My whole life I've been a collector. When I was very young, I collected things that were free – rocks, feathers, shells, buttons, dead bugs, those round plastic things that they used to stick on top of delivery pizzas (which doubled really well as Barbie tables). As I grew older and acquired some disposable income, I spent my three dollar weekly allowance on stamps, nail polish, erasers shaped like baby animals, postcards, and Pentel markers.

I had little Altoids boxes floating around the house where I stored my treasures. Bags of fabric scraps that I planned to use for doll clothes. Orphan socks whose twins had been lost in the wash (I felt bad for them!). Images torn from encyclopedias that I planned to use in my "historical novel" and a notebook full of words that I liked. Did I mention I was home-schooled?

This trend continued into my secondary years (public school by then), and when I moved to Berkeley for college I discovered a little something called the sidewalk economy. That's right, people just left things on the sidewalk! Boxes full of books, magazines, old academic texts, antique glass beakers, records! So many wonderful things! I was in heaven, and it wasn't uncommon for me to waltz into my creative writing seminar with some geology professor's discarded topographical maps tucked under my arm.

But during that first decade of adulthood, I also lived in a series of tiny spaces, including a shared dorm room, a studio apartment, and two different converted living rooms (yeah, you can ask Jon about how fun that was). These space limitations meant that I had to curb my collecting habit considerably, and only keep the things around that I really loved. Which... was still quite a lot of things.

I was first introduced to the concept of minimalism when a college classmate, an art major, came over for a drink before our study group. She surveyed my room, furnished with a twin mattress, a wooden crate converted into a nightstand, an antique folding table, and a stainless steel mini fridge. On and about these furnishings was my sidewalk stuff, arranged with a carefully-planned haphazardness.

"You're quite the minimalist," she said.

I laughed, since I had to try so hard to suppress my hoarding instincts (maybe she hadn't seen the pile of 1960's French magazines tucked under the dresser?). I also didn't consider my current ensemble – a bright red blazer atop a lace dress and fishnets – particularly understated. 

"Really? I hate neutrals," I replied.

Then she laughed, like art majors do when you've clearly misinterpreted an aesthetic idea.

"No, I mean, you have a lot of stuff, it's just really well-curated."

That's still one of the highest compliments I've ever been paid.

. . .

Fast forward ten years or so, and the terms minimalism and curation are hard to tune out. These concepts inform so much of what I and this blog are about... but honestly, they cause me a lot of anxiety, too.

If you're already a reader of the blog Into Mind, you know how brilliant author Anuschka is at making the theory and practice of minimalism accessible. And if you're not, here's her view on what makes a wardrobe minimalist:

"It’s not a smaller size or a neutral colour palette or a lack of patterns or details, but the fact that it was put together according to the key idea of minimalism. And that is: to get rid of everything that doesn’t make you happy or enrich your life, to make space for stuff that does."

Her writing has been very helpful as I've grown from "I hate neutrals" to a deeper understanding of minimalism. Think before you shop, hone your personal style to make more thoughtful choices, don't let your life become cluttered with stuff just for the sake of having it. These are tenets I can get behind, ones that have helped me curb my impulse shopping and sidewalk-collecting. But the part I have trouble with is the getting rid of everything that doesn't make you happy – or, as Marie Kondo puts it, only keeping things around that "spark joy."

This doesn't work for me for two reasons:

  1. I have a lot of things in my life that spark joy
  2. The nature of what sparks joy for me changes over time

Case in Point 1: I have three drawers, four boxes, and two wicker baskets full of what basically amount to scraps of paper. Pages of books I've ripped out, notes I've found on the sidewalk, bits of artwork I've created over the years, concert ticket stubs, a child's passport photo from the 1950's. A lot of silly, useless stuff. Except that it's not.

Back in college I actually had time to do something with all of this stuff, which is why my arty friend thought I was such a masterful curator. I had shadowboxes, little shrines and displays, scrapbooks that looked like this:

While I don't have that kind of time these days, I keep my scraps around anyway. Because just knowing they're there – that I might do something with them someday – brings me joy.

Case in Point 2: the black velvet jacket. When I was in college, I splurged on a gorgeous black velvet blazer that I lived in for a year. Then one day, like that album you listen to on repeat, I decided I hated it. It was too structured, too hipster, too brooding, too representative of everything I disliked about pretentious San Francisco. So, in one of many closet purges, I sold it to Buffalo Exchange. Several years later, in need of a structured velvet blazer, I really wish I'd kept it around.

This happens a lot with me. My style evolves, my tastes change, trends fade and emerge again. To get rid of clothes that don't happen to spark joy in whatever mood I happen to be in while cleaning out my closet is stupid, not to mention wasteful.

For that reason, I keep four plastic bins full of clothing in my downstairs storage unit. True, they take up space that comes at a premium in this city. True, I might not ever wear half the stuff that's in there again. But I'm keeping it anyway.

I guess the bottom line is that being surrounded by a lot of beautiful, messy stuffbrings me joy. Hiding things away from myself for years, then discovering them again, brings me joy. Deciding to keep a dress I know I'll never wear again just in case my daughter might be into it? That brings me joy, too. And as I get older and acquire more stuff, as we build a family and our collective stuff proliferates, as I rush out of the house in a babyfood-splattered sweatshirt that may or may not spark any kind of emotion – well, that might not make me a very good minimalist.

But I'll still have a hell of a lot of joy.