"I've become a minimalist," my friend Lulu told me last week. She has moved into a very designed and lushly gardened loft space in Lake Claire. "The more stuff I take out of the place, the better it looks," she said.
Indeed, Lulu has sold nearly everything she owns. "I was amazed at what people bought," she said. "And no matter what it was, everyone asked how old it was and whether it had a story." One man so annoyed her by relentlessly trying to extract a story about an object that when he asked its price, she barked "17 dollars," even though she'd planned to ask $2. The man had invested so much significance in the object that he unblinkingly paid the larcenous price.
I've had a decades-long fantasy of living in a minimalist environment myself. I spent two years back in the '80s editing a large design magazine and was repeatedly captivated when I encountered such decors. I often scouted glittering penthouses, where the most significant feature was the view. Ornamentation was limited to, say, a few pieces of well-placed, zillion-dollar furniture and art. The flotsam and jetsam of my ordinary life -- magazines, books, knickknacks, coffee cups and cat litter -- were completely absent from view. I pictured myself attaining enlightenment by living amid such zenlike emptiness.
But the fact is, I more identify with the man who assumed every one of Lulu's tchotchkes was suffused with meaningful history. Although I have twice purged myself of nearly everything I owned -- both times after ending relationships -- most of my life has been spent with an embarrassing and indiscriminate attachment to objects. I wouldn't classify this as the usual materialism because my attachment is sentimental and often unhelpful.
An example is the ancient clock radio that wakes me up every morning -- well, every morning that it works. I can't bear to part with it because it belonged to my friend Joe, who died about 15 years ago. Every time I touch or hear it, I think of him. I have a superstitious belief that I will forget Joe if I put the clock away.
Other objects remind me of who I am. On the mantel of my office is my silver christening cup, so tarnished you can hardly read the engraved, ancient date. There's also a stuffed Eeyore, the gloomy and sardonic donkey in the Winnie the Pooh stories. My mother gave it to me when I was a child because I instantly identified with him and still do. So he not only reminds me of my melancholic nature, but of the love of stories I shared with my mother.
I have a gigantic 22-year-old vine that spills over the balcony inside our house. I have a 25-year-old fishing license I never used, dried up oranges from the yard of poet Federico García Lorca, a stick picked up during a hike long ago in Sonoma County, a river rock I handed the Dalai Lama, a one-legged iron goose from the garden of a society writer I knew 30 years ago. And more ... much more.
On top of the purely personal objects are hundreds of vinyl records and a thousand or more books. When Lulu told me she'd purged her book collection, I think I gasped. Although I once unloaded a lot of bad novels, books are the possessions that matter most to me. My third-grade teacher, who was also the school librarian, used to read to me for hours after school and would not let me touch a book without washing my hands. The sense that a book is a sacred transit to another world never left me.
I confided here last week that my mother, who cannot speak because of a stroke 12 years ago, is dying. My brother told me that during one of his recent visits, she insisted on looking at each piece of jewelry in a box on her dresser. "It wasn't even the good stuff," he said, "but she looked at every piece like it was something beautiful." I knew very well what my mother was experiencing. Every piece of jewelry, no matter its value or craftsmanship, was a door to a world of memories and feelings.
Of course, there is a point -- a point I long ago reached -- when the brew of objects becomes too dense to focus on its ingredients. I forget that one does exercise some choice in what occupies memory and what, in turn, heavily inflects one's emotional state. Lulu noted as much when she pointed out that on entering her new home and looking down the long rectangular and mainly empty space, her gaze is always met by the dollhouse of her daughters, now adults. "I love that," she said. I envy Lulu's decision to pare back her possessions; it was difficult for her, but the result is a keener focus on what matters most. I doubt minimalism is in my future, but it's good to be reminded that objects intensely affect the way I feel. I'll let you know when my yard sale is scheduled.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.
Wait did did you get the Christmas gifts or not yet? Writing about gun control…
Funny and interesting. Thanks.
"Stadium Love" - Metric
Ben Palmer is a funny dude. I'm saving up to buy his book someday.
Some call it poverty - others call it a simpler life.