Ever since Alvaro’s and my trip back to my hometown in June, my friend-since-middle-school Jane (she of the jelly bean tights) and I have been exchanging emails with links to articles on “minimalism.” It’s the continuation of a conversation we had about Marie Kondo over a bottle of wine and chips and hummus on my parents’ deck one evening. That conversation started because I was talking about how each time I’m back home to visit and occasionally during our weekly Skype calls, my father brings up the record player in the basement.
The record player is a circa 1960s console that looks something like this:
and it has been sitting in my parents’ basement since 2003. I picked it up on a spontaneous road trip to Schenectady that I took with my college roommate the summer before our senior year. We got ice cream and sunburned by the lake before aimlessly walking around town. We discovered a yard sale and stopped to browse, of course, because we liked yard sales, and amid all the random household stuff spread out on the lawn there was a pile of records. Neither of us owned a record player but we decided to stock up for the day that we would. When I mentioned our lack of record player to the guy who took our crumpled dollar bills, he gestured over to the piece of furniture upon which we’d found the records, the furniture that I had thought was a chest of drawers or something, and informed us that it was a record player and that we could take it away for free. For free! We ran off to find my car and were delighted to discover that the record player was just the right size to be squeezed into the back seat. When we thanked the man and got ready to haul our treasure away, he added that there was a second record player, the same size only in white, inside the garage, and it was also free for the taking. Magin and I looked at each other, then at the man, and said, “we’ll be back.” We drove all the way back to Syracuse, left the first record player on our front porch, and then drove all the way back to Schenectady to pick up the second. I should mention also that we lived on a fourth floor walk-up with narrow stairs and no landings, but nevertheless managed to haul our new toys up to their new home.
We considered this to be the find of the century. With shaking hands we plugged in one of the record players and selected our first album. And it still worked! The speakers were shot so the sound was scratchy and muted, but we liked it that way because it sounded like the background music to a scene in a period film. It took up a quarter of the living room but we didn’t care. It was charming and retro.
When I finished college, I took the lacquered fake wood record player back to my parents’ house. Magin left the white one in Syracuse, which at the time I thought was insane. My dad, on the other hand, thought that I was the insane one. “You know you can buy those things for 30 dollars, right?” he said. That only confirmed to me that this had been a find, because this one was free. When I moved to New York City in the fall, the record player stayed in my parents’ basement, because my New York apartments were even smaller than my college apartment was. Three years later I moved to Switzerland, and later on to France, and the record player has remained in the basement because to date there has been no affordable way to move such a heavy lump of furniture overseas. Thus, for the past 13 years, I have had the same conversation on Skype with my father on a bi-monthly basis, and face to face when I’m home visiting, which goes something like this:
Him: “So… you know that record player in the basement?”
Him: “You know that you’re never going to use it again. What do you say we give it to the Salvation Army?”
I answer with vows that I will use it again, some day, and in the meantime don’t you dare throw it away the way you threw away all my childhood stuffed animals who had been my best friends from ages four to seven (to which my mother interjects that they were moldy), and then I wax poetic on that beautiful day in Schenectady and all the good memories soaked into the very molecules of the record player’s plywood frame, etc. In recent years this conversation has gotten much shorter: Dad asks when he can get rid of the record player. I say “never.”
On this last visit I was dealt a surprise ace card when Dad brought up the record player, pointing out that it’s not even wired for French outlets. I turned to Alvaro, who is an electrician. “Do you think you could rewire it?” I asked. “Of course,” he said, unwittingly stepping into a decade-long family argument. “That’s easy, it would take me all of ten minutes.” Ha! I turned to my Dad, who threw up his hands in defeat.
All of this came up in my conversation with Jane, because apparently the KonMari thing is about only keeping things that “spark joy,” and this record player, despite being located 3,000 miles away from where I actually live, certainly sparks joy for me. But then we got to talking about all the things wrong with KonMari, including the reality that many people of our generation can get away with capsule wardrobes and pared-down book collections because we secretly have all the rest of our crap stored in our parents’ basements. Jane later sent me a link to an article on Slate that claimed the anti-stuff (and pro-experience) thing was inherently sexist. I can’t say that I buy that; just because the stereotypical domain of women is the home vs the open road for men, I can’t equate calls to pare down our worldly affairs with an attack on womanhood.
Still, despite not agreeing that experiences > stuff is sexist, the idea of radical minimalism is not to my liking, and has bothered me for reasons that I’m now starting to pinpoint after reading the latest article Jane sent my way. In “The Oppressive Gospel of ‘Minimalism,'” (New York Times, 26 July 2016), Kyle Chayka writes that today’s minimalism “comes with an inherent pressure to conform to its precepts. Whiteness, in a literal sense, is good. Mess, heterogeneity, is bad — the opposite impulse of artistic minimalism. It is anxiety-inducing in a manner indistinguishable from other forms of consumerism, not revolutionary at all. Do I own the right things? Have I jettisoned enough of the wrong ones?” Minimalism, he continues, “is now conflated with self-optimization,” and its proponents “present it as a logical end to lifestyle, culture and even morality: If we attain only the right things, the perfect things, and forsake all else, then we will be free from the tyranny of our desires. But time often proves aesthetic permanence, as well as moral high ground, to be illusory.” He continues:
Writing in The Atlantic in March, Arielle Bernstein described minimalism’s ban on clutter as a “privilege” that runs counter to the value ascribed to an abundance of objects by those who have suffered from a lack of them — less-empowered people like refugees or immigrants. The movement, such as it is, is led in large part by a group of men who gleefully ditch their possessions as if to disavow the advantages by which they obtained them. But it takes a lot to be minimalist: social capital, a safety net and access to the internet. The technology we call minimalist might fit in our pockets, but it depends on a vast infrastructure of grim, air-conditioned server farms and even grimmer Chinese factories.
Arielle Bernstein, in the article linked to above, furthermore points out that “in order to feel comfortable throwing out all your old socks and handbags, you have to feel pretty confident that you can easily get new ones. Embracing a minimalist lifestyle is an act of trust.” She relates her assertions to her own family history, of immigrant grandparents fleeing Poland just prior to the Holocaust, grandparents who would later go on to become great accumulators of stuff. Her story reminded me of my own grandparents, who grew up during the Great Depression and who also went on to become great accumulators of stuff. In the house where my mother grew up, there were enough canned and dry foods stocked to last their family of seven for a year should a nuclear third world war come to pass. That is not an exaggeration: four refrigerators, one old-school stand-alone freezer (at the bottom of which was undoubtedly a freezer burned collection of hamburger patties from 1959), and an entire basement room with floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall shelves stocked with home-canned produce. This was not done as a direct response to the Cold War, but rather out of pure practicality, because you never know what tomorrow might bring. When my grandparents moved to my hometown from the West Coast in 2002, my mother discovered in one of the moving boxes a single lightbulb that had been painstakingly wrapped in several layers of newspaper. When my grandmother died in 2011 and my grandfather moved into an assisted-living home, among the discoveries in cleaning out their house was an entire cabinet in the garage filled with discount chocolate bars coated in white film and a kitchen drawer containing travelers checks printed with the date “Month ____ Day ____ , 19____.” In short, my Greatest Generation grandparents did not throw anything away, ever.
Now, what do we do? Thread-bare socks? Trash. A dull dress that I only wore once and had only bought because it was on sale and I hadn’t done laundry in three weeks? Into the donation bin. Items of nostalgia? Who needs them if you have a functioning limbic system?
A few years ago I embarked on an attempt to streamline my wardrobe. It’s never really been out of control, but I decided one day that it could be better. It could be the ideal wardrobe in which everything would be worn regularly yet still remain in pristine condition, in which everything coordinated with everything else so as to minimize choices in the morning, and which would contain all of the so-called essentials. Following wardrobe purge instructions on some blog, I pulled everything in my closet, laid it out on the living room floor, and spent the better part of a Saturday afternoon regarding each item with a critical eye (hours of life spent that I can never get back). When I had separated out everything that was ill-fitting, or that I was tired of wearing all the time, or that had any tears, or tiny stains that only I knew existed, I was left with relatively very little. Per the blog that was guiding me, I should have gotten rid of everything that was less than my ideal, but then what would I do? With so little clothing left that sparked joy, a massive shopping trip would be in order. Despite the fact that I quite simply couldn’t afford to do that, the idea of purging my clothing and then turning around and buying all new stuff seemed absurd. I picked out a few items for donation, set aside some others for minor repairs, and hung the rest back up in my closet.
So, this is how I feel about my stuff: I could, for example, go the route of donating my entire book collection to the library and then go out and buy an e-reader, or else I could decide to stop surfing used book stores and buying a first edition of The Little Prince just because it’s a first edition, and perhaps maybe just read the books I already own, half of which I’ve never even cracked open. I think the second option makes more sense. If I take the hard-line on my book collection just because it takes up physical space, but then go out and buy some techy apparatus filled with minerals mined in the Congo river basin and assembled in a Chinese factory, how is that being minimal? Or should I just get rid of all my books and vow to never read again, except on the computer that I already own, which is also filled with minerals mined in the Congo river basin and assembled in a Chinese factory?
In researching the thrift propaganda that came out of the Allied countries during World War II, I’ve come across many posters like the above with its motto “Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do,” which is often followed by the PS “Or do without.” That’s kind of where I am these days, and that’s what I think is missing from all the books and blog posts and manifestos for streamlining our collective crap. They skip over the fact that people who are dealing with decades of accumulation are not newborn babes with a fresh start in life. We have literal baggage to deal with, and the quest for the perfectly curated wardrobe and the spartan living room with its single e-reader posed on a reclaimed wood coffee table next to a succulent fails to take into consideration that arriving at Point B from Point A involves sending truckloads of our pre-minimalist life into landfills, where someone else has to deal with it. And we then wash our hands of our past filled with stuff and post a triumphant photo of our capsule wardrobe to Instagram.
That’s not the kind of life I want. I like my books, my grandmothers’ tea cups, my flea market typewriter that I never really use. As people who also make stuff, Alvaro and I have a side room filled with things for making clothes, furniture, lamps, and random stuff we find in the street that one day we’ll repurpose and reuse (we swear!). I prefer to hang on to my photo albums from high school and college, though I rarely look at them, because they’re part of my past. When I decide that I no longer care for a particular item of clothing, I set it aside to refashion it into something else, or maybe I just store it away out of sight, figuring (rightly, usually) that in two years I’ll rediscover why I once liked it.
In the end, I’m all for cleaning house, but I think this x-treme purge thing is just the latest incarnation of an ancient desire for purity, for detox, for re-invention into an aestheticized version of one’s self, sweeping all deritus under the rug and proclaiming ourselves clean.