The windows were open, and I could smell the grass outside. It was green and sunny — not a cloud in the sky. A prototypical Colorado day followed me around, as I moved what little I owned into a small cubby, under a lofted mattress, and into a petite wooden desk.
It was move-in day for college — fall 2007.
I rolled out a single-bed mattress sheet, chintzy comforter, and single pillow cover. The mattress was an ocean blue, and perpetually felt uncomfortable. But it was my new home.
Somewhere in this process, I learned to live with less. I didn’t call it minimalism back then. It didn’t feel like minimalism.
Forced space? Mandated minimalism
I wasn’t given the option to live any other way in college. My closet only accepted a few shirts, shoes, pants, etc. My bedroom didn’t allow for larger mattresses. And my desk only had room for the basic necessities: pens, paper, and laptop.
After my first year of college, I moved into another residence hall to become an “RA” or resident assistant. I loved my position. It was and still is my favorite job. But even then, with a little more room, I was forced to stay minimal.
Now, minimalism doesn’t always mean being frugal. Despite my enclosures, I cycled through lots of things. There was a $1200 road bike (kept outside and then sold), a mini fridge (under the bed and then sold), electronics (a desktop computer and then sold), and more. For everything I bought, I sold something else — both to afford the new item and make space.
I was hardly frugal. I was mad with the need to consume away my problems, concerns, and stresses of school. No matter how much I purchased, the feelings remained.
Where I failed budgetarily, I seemed to succeed in minimalism. My room was still neat and tidy, and presentable to residents and their parents. I didn’t have a need for lots of stuff — nor could I put it anywhere.
While I wasn’t ready to change my spending habits until years later, an inclination towards minimalism was cemented. All it took was a forced restriction from many years of residence hall rooms to prevent the purchase of more than I needed. I developed an affinity for a clean, organized room. I didn’t need or want to have tons of things.
The losses hurt immensely
Another component pushed me towards minimalism: loss. In college I was exposed directly and indirectly to losses in life. Three of my grandparents passed away, three people died by suicide on campus that I knew, and I went through some pretty nasty breakups.
These losses encouraged me to look beyond the petty grievances and consumer comforts of society. What was important was the life of those around me, and spending time with those I cared about. Again, things weren’t as important as people.
During this period of tragedy, I realized how loss of material possessions didn’t matter. Suddenly, I stopped worrying about people stealing my stuff, things failing, and/or leaving my home unattended. Renters insurance seemed irrelevant and unnecessary. I had nothing “priceless.”
What’s going to fit in the trunk?
After college and the losses, I moved for graduate school. Again, it was a time of forced minimalism. I could only take what would fit in my Honda Civic coupe. And there was an added caveat, as my brother would be occupying the passenger seat.
To lighten the load, I listed items on Craigslist and asked friends if they needed odds and ends. Then, my brother and I filled the car with deconstructed IKEA furniture, clothing, and other household items. Our seats were forced upright — unable to recline — by the tightly packed vehicle.
Everything I owned fit into one tiny little car. It felt freeing, but frankly, all I could think about was the truly precious cargo: my brother. If everything else disappeared, let it not be him. That’s all that mattered/matters.
What really matters in life is…
I never sought to be a minimalist in my younger years, it found me. When I entered a small space and shared it with a roommate, I was forced to have less. When I lost loved ones, I was forced to reflect on what was most important. When my brother helped me move, I pictured what I would really need.
Stuff never came first.
Recently, I was grabbing a drink with someone and this question came up: “What would you grab if your apartment/house were on fire (excluding pets and humans)?”
I thought briefly about this question and almost cried. I couldn’t come up with anything. Nothing mattered beyond the human and pet connections in my life. Nothing. I feared the loss of… nothing.