This summer I went to Spain and walked 500km of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. It’s a pilgrim’s route and the idea is to walk the Way carrying your life on your back, much the same way generations of pilgrims have done before. I had budgeted about three weeks’ of walking and a pack that carried my whole world weighing in at 18 lbs (8kg). I had three sets of clothing (one I was wearing), my toiletries, my sleeping bag, towel and sweater, sandals, a bit of food, my devices and a raincoat. If you are curious or are interested in doing the Camino at some point, which I highly recommend, here is a full list of the contents.
The interesting thing is that while I was packing, I found a use for almost everything I had originally laid out before me. But when my pack became ridiculously heavy, I realized I would have to edit my contents even more. It’s quite amazing how much weight a bunch of small things can create. Even along the Way, I discarded things I discovered I was not THAT attached to. Even small things that at the beginning I thought, “Well, it weighs nothing and it might come in handy…” were tossed. Things that WERE handy but just not needed were discarded. Every day, as I arrived at my accommodation for the night, I thought to myself, “I have got to make this pack lighter!!”
Every afternoon, exhausted and usually wind or sun burnt, I would unpack my pack and ask the same questions again and again: Do I REALLY need this? Is there some way I can do without this? Do I have something else that could do the same thing? And this way, I left some more items behind.
To be fair, I feel like I did pack well from the beginning as there wasn’t too much that I felt able or necessary to get rid of but the physical pain and the exhaustion really brought me to a point of clarity in terms of what was really necessary and what really wasn’t. As with clarity in any situation, the level of clarity needed to discern what is necessary in life and what is not is quite an uncomfortable place to get to. One has to be mentally and physically pushed to their limit to have a true understanding of the Truth.
This level of clarity is really hard to reach in our everyday lives. Not only because we aren’t pushed to such extremes but because there is just SO. MUCH. GOING. ON. around us that we lose sight of what is truly important. And items that aren’t really necessary start to feel absolutely necessary in terms of saving precious time or energy (or mental health).
This year has been tough. This work year for me is one of the busiest I’ve ever had. I’m dealing with needs that I’ve never experienced before. It is what it is. I love my job and these kinds of years happen, hopefully not too often. This year, for me, is one of those years. Having recovered from burning out in 2016, I could feel myself entering territory I wished never to see again. Life was busy. Way too busy. I constantly wondered how I ever had time to watch TV in my “previous life”. How did Soldier Boy and I have time (and money) to go on date nights twice a week?? It just wasn’t making sense. Granted, we now have a few more responsibilities – our tiny cabin, a third dog, a broken ankle. But really, how did things so quickly get out of control? This, as well as my recent experience walking the Camino, pushed me to reevaluate my living environment again.
Minimalism – and the Tiny Life – isn’t just about having less stuff. It’s also about having less stuff going on. It’s about clearing out our many aspects of life to make room for peace and balance and reflection and soul-giving activities, whatever that may look like in your life.
Last year, I decluttered. I’m sure I discarded, donated or sold almost half of my stuff. I felt lighter after. I was proud of myself. But having walked for three weeks living with just what was in my pack, I am at a whole new level of letting go. When my work environment started to explode, I could feel myself slowly but surely going under. Soldier Boy had his last ankle surgery and I was coping with doing everything in the house, walking the dogs, a ten-hour work day every day, administrative paperwork the likes I had not seen for years, and maintaining a three bedroom single family home. I could feel the overwhelm seeping in. I felt myself getting close to a point where I had been before and it wasn’t good.
I started small; I reclaimed some mental space. I stopped Facebook. A time-waster that added nothing but stress to my life. Interestingly, I had tried several times before to “quit” Facebook and kept falling off the wagon. This time, I quite simply reached a point where it was no longer an option. I was just too busy. So I just deleted the app and haven’t looked back. (I still have an account though because I’m part of several groups that I wish to maintain contact with.) Not being on it has given me space and calm, not to mention it has reminded me of the importance of doing things for myself and not for others to hear about. Not only that but I now spend this time doing things that are far more meaningful to me, like simply reading a book, listening to a TED talk or mulling over my agenda, planning an effective and engaging day at work the next day (from which I take great satisfaction).
Then, this weekend, I had no appointments and no paperwork to do for work so my goal was to regain control of my living space. When life gets too busy and I feel like I can’t keep up, I often do this. I “attack” the house (inspiring sentiments of fear and self-preservation in Soldier Boy). Usually it’s cleaning. After, the house looks spotless and I feel like I have control of my life again. But this time, I had realized that the cleaning isn’t the issue. It’s the STUFF. So we made a plan.
I had to clean the carpets and we took this opportunity to empty everything out of the two bedrooms and start fresh. Instead of doing just one room or just one section of things (ex. books), we decided to do the entire upstairs. I read a crazy statistic that said the average (North) American household has 300 000 items. Before we decluttered the first time, I would have agreed that we had about that much stuff, maybe even more. But as we were doing the second big declutter this weekend, I thought to myself, “Where did all of this come from? I thought we got rid of all of this crap? Why do we STILL have so much stuff??” While we certainly don’t have nearly the same amount of items that we used to, we both realized that we were still clinging to things that we didn’t really need.
This weekend we were able to look at all of these things with new eyes. I was looking with my Camino eyes and Soldier Boy was looking with his “I will forever have mobility issues” eyes. Because that’s another big issue. Mobility and managing the stuff around you. When we get old, or if one of us dies, are we going to leave all of this sorting and cleaning up to someone else? If we can no longer walk or climb stairs, we will definitely need to declutter and reorganize. Might as well do the hard stuff now, while we are of sound mind and (fairly) able body.
Some of my goals were to create more visual space, to get rid of more items and to decrease the amount of work I needed to do to maintain the house. Soldier Boy had goals of putting all of his necessary items in one place for ease of accessibility and letting go of some sentimental items that he’s been working up to letting go.
To create visual space, I took down everything off my walls. I decided which pieces I wanted to keep and found places of honour for them, like one of my late uncle’s photographs and a souvenir from Santiago. A standard wall map will stay until I find a more unique and personal representation of the world to replace it. Now, no matter where I look, my brain and heart can focus on one piece and the beautiful story behind it.
By getting rid of objects and then reorganizing them, I decreased my workload of household maintenance. We got rid of several small pieces of furniture and numerous knick-knacks so now there are fewer surfaces to dust, the carpets were cleaned thoroughly, and clothes storage was refined which means less running from room to room when laundry day comes (as it comes more often with fewer clothes).
Having goals made it easier to make decisions about what stays and what needed to go. But no matter how ready one is to part with an object – and I was emotionally ready to toss 90% of it – it’s always exhausting to go through this process. No matter how many times you’ve done it.
It’s emotionally exhausting because you need to reflect and consider each item. If you are just starting out and have way more than the average 300 000 items, just think about how much mental energy that would take to sort through. I don’t think anyone can do it for more than a few hours at a time. Of course, near the end, one is usually so exhausted that it’s much easier to just say goodbye than to have to find a home for the object. When I reach this point, I often say to myself, “Is this item worth the mental anguish of having to decide to keep it and then find a home for it only to discard it later?” The answer is usually “No.” and it gets tossed into the donation pile.
It’s also physically exhausting because as you get rid of stuff, you realize that the storage solutions you had been using don’t work anymore. I discarded enough items that I decided I would consolidate what was left on a tall bookshelf and what remained of a small storage set with drawers into the small storage shelf with drawers. But then I had a bit too much for the small storage solution. So I had to purge some more. But then I had to remove the larger bookcase from the office and move the smaller one in. But first I had to vacuum everywhere that was under the old furniture, then fix the hole in the wall that the large bookcase was hiding, and then of course, remove all the garbage that I had collected, move all the donations into the back of the SUV and find a new home for the handful of items that I really did want to keep but wouldn’t fit into the new storage solution.
Not only did we do the upstairs, but we tackled one small section of the garage – the Halloween section. We sorted our props and costumes and managed to get rid of two large storage bins of decorations. I’m hopeful that after we purge the Christmas decorations, the garage will start to feel downright spacious.
De-cluttering, downsizing or minimizing your life is not a quick or easy task. It happens in stages. First we are ready to let go of the obvious. Then something happens in our lives and we are ready to let go of more. Then we learn and grow and reflect and we look at things with new eyes again and we are ready to let go of even the things at one time we thought we would keep forever. I would hazard a guess that the only people who can do it in one fell swoop are the people who have experienced such profound change in a short period of time that they must cut everything but the absolute Truth out of their life in order to simply survive. For the rest of us, we need to be okay with taking it one step at a time.