In early May, I received a plastic transparent plaque from my workplace in honor of my ten-year service anniversary, which is coming up in late June. Also in the box was a card linking me to the website where I could redeem a gift. There had been no gift for my five-year anniversary, just a plaque.
When I went to the website, what struck me first was how many of the $15-$50 items I had seen lining the shelves at Goodwill. I saw myself a year from now during my annual clutter purge and putting these things in a box to be taken there, never to be seen again, and recalled the guilt I have sometimes felt about purchase decisions that eventually turned out to be bad ideas.
It was an overwhelming list. No information about anything — just a tiny photo and a description of the brand and item name. I had Amazon open in one tab just to figure out what some of the nondescript things were. Eventually, I decided on a grill — fortuitous, as the portable grill my girlfriend and I use melted through the leg holes the first time we used it this season just a week after I made my decision. No surprise — it was unbranded from RiteAid. The Gods were with me in that overwhelm, it seems — thank Hermes, and I actually laughed knowing we had a new grill on the way. The new grill is branded and worth about $40.
Ever since being overwhelmed at a ComicCon in the early 10s and forsaking fandom due to the commercialist orgy it has become, whenever people share bookshelves and images of their collections, I often get a trapped feeling in my chest. That worsened in the late 10s after my dust mite allergy diagnosis. If I want to feel OK, if I don’t want to have a sore throat and congestion and eczema and hives, I have to keep my space clean. Every surface dusted. Every piece of fabric-covered furniture in my home a liability. Every week taking the vacuum out and putting on a face mask. Sometimes I used to wake up at night and feel like I couldn’t breathe, and that stopped 100% after I started washing all of my bedding in hot water once a week after my diagnosis. Every cluttered shelf represents another 10-15 minutes of my weekly life spent dusting and cleaning. If I had an entire room of clutter, it would be hours of my time per week. I keep looking at the things people post online, at the statistics I know about dust and dust mite allergies (it’s about 10% of us worldwide, many of whom are oblivious to why they have symptoms), and the thought of all of that cleaning makes me feel weighed down and tired. The only place in my apartment with loads and loads of display stuff is my shrine where the icons are, and I keep that clean, as one should. But that’s part of the service and the practice.
When I came into seriously considering minimalism, I was a new professional who had (still have, lol) student loan debt, who lived alone due to the risks of non-gluten-free roommates, and who had to put together a capsule wardrobe and be very frugal just to get by. For example, I had to fund a lot of the expenses behind conferences, which I was required to attend for professional development so I could pass my performance evaluation and stay — our workplace stipened at the time only covered $1200 per year in total. I didn’t start to get ahead with that until the pandemic, when suddenly I only had to pay registration fees, not the ridiculous hotel and travel expenses. There were so many other adulting expenses that it often felt like I was playing the Oregon Trail. After years of trending minimalist, though, while I did Marie Kondoing and have a decluttering process I observe, it’s likely that many minimalists wouldn’t think I’m a minimalist.
See, I have a fairly large quantity of books. I’m fine decluttering books — I’m a librarian, and we have to be hard-hearted about weeding. I have a shrine with icons that follow the changes in my life over time, the practice I have put together through careful love and attention over the decades — it’s a functional, active space. I store most other things in closets and sealed containers to make dusting easier.
And I’m not that into beige walls. While I love the look and feel of light-colored wood and appreciate Scandinavian minimalism from a heritage standpoint, and I adore the clean lines of midcentury modern, my favorite art movements are the Pre-Raphaelites and Art Deco. I love ancient Classical art, especially the murals and mosaics. My walls are covered in art that I have received as gifts or that I’ve purchased. The two art pieces that made me feel like such a grown-up — purchased during the pandemic — are based on Platonic passages, Amy Hiley’s “In Search of the Miraculous” and “Love’s Situation.” Before I had to get rid of my loveseat couch for allergy reasons (I’m still saving up for a leather one), it was covered in a beautiful floral pattern that reminded me of the eighteenth century, one of my favorite periods for the embroidered garments and fashion at the time, and it was perfect for my ideal “style” — insofar as I have one, as I’m skeptical about the emotional and mental energy required to do that, and I’d rather read Proclus and write and live my life. My ideal space, if I were not constrained by budget and could just “set and forget it” so I didn’t have to commit mental energy to it, would combine clean lines and loud geometric and floral patterns. It would be easy to clean, with a few sentimental items on display behind glass (items I currently keep in a box in a closet). All of the bookshelves would have doors.
This post has a provocative title — and I did that for three reasons. First, I think the media is trying to sell a “Millennials against Zoomers” narrative that is 100% fake. I know many people my age who have been into what would now be considered cluttercore since I was in college, and I have ambiently seen many people a decade younger than me getting into more minimalist lifestyles. I know people who used to be very pro-clutter who became minimalists after having bed bugs and dealing with months of fatigue sanitizing possessions over and over — they never want to do that again. I know women who now have kids, and minimalism is the sole tool they have to ensure that they have time to live their lives instead of cleaning up after their families on top of their full-time jobs. There’s a huge tendency for the media to attribute current cultural trends to the “young people” generation when everyone of every generation is thinking about how they modify and change their lives to make homes more restful and cozy — the pandemic rattled, and rattles, all of us. We’re spending so much time at home now that even the most extreme minimalists are softening up and discovering the delights of comfy chairs and storing tools for their hobbies.
Second, I think that, especially in a time of the climate crisis, when all of us need to mindfully manage our consumption and push back on companies trying to zeitgeist us into participating in their bullshit consumer mania, all of us can benefit from mindfully considering what it is about possessions that makes us feel held and at ease and what about them is a dealbreaker. For me, it’s fabric — I bought a few yoga blankets that I can use for cushioning because they’re completely washable, unlike fabric-upholstered furniture, and I bought two IKEA Poäng chairs not because they are comfortable, but because they are covered in thick removable fabric that is washable. It might not be “minimalist” — but it’s not exactly cluttercore, either. I started prioritizing wood icons and items for my shrine a few years ago over other materials because wood is renewable (Plato does favor that in the Laws, incidentally). Now that we know that almost no plastics are getting recycled, and if they are, we’re offloading them to countries where the poorest and most economically vulnerable people (often children) are forced to work in dangerous and demeaning conditions to process them, those of us who can buy differently should do so when we can (note: most gluten-free flours are in plastic for cross-contamination protocols, and I’ve accepted that that won’t change until we have bioplastic composting infrastructure in America; right now, biodegradable plastics are still greenwashing because few of us have access to composting), and those of us who can’t should send a lot of angry letters to our representatives (see Beyond Plastics for some ideas) so we can regulate the non-biodegradable plastic industry and get industrial-quality composting set up in our areas.
Third, pushing this narrative puts many young people at risk of turning away from the very things that are most helpful as new professionals, the stage many Zoomers are at or are rapidly approaching — all of the benefits of being strategic that I mentioned from early on in my career, as entry-level salaries are not going to support anyone’s cluttercore lifestyle unless you want to go into debt or clear out a Goodwill instead of buying groceries. To be 100% frank, unless you grew up with a big cash influx from your parents, you’re going to go into enough debt early in your career from not having an emergency savings. Why compound the problem and your future pain?
Ultimately, I’m still mystified about this strange narrative and the ethics of pushing it — we are all people trying to do the best we can, who are juggling our reason against our desires for safety and security and our emotional uncertainty. We may approach that in different ways, and we all have different inclinations and set points for the amount of stuff in our space that we can handle without overwhelm. Promoting a consumerist extreme, in the end, only serves credit card companies and big business, not us human beings caught up in the system itself.