I’m supposed to be this traveller, right; living out of a suitcase and being all minimalist and everything. Yet somehow I have still ended up with loads of stuff. To make anti-clutter matters worse, I now live in a house, rather than doing the van life/couch surfing thing that I was for three months at the beginning of the year, and when you have an entire room to exist in it’s even easier to accumulate stuff. It happens slowly over time, creeping up on you like a stray plastic bag in an empty car park on a slightly windy day. One moment it’s just you, your suitcase and an empty room, then suddenly you can’t even get in your room because the nine jumpers, the fifty-eight notebooks, the foam roller, the bag of bags, the six pairs of old shoes and the grandfather clock are wedged against the door, barricading themselves inside.
I went through a brief period last year thinking with a touch of smugness that surely I must be some sort of cool hipster minimalist because I escaped from the motherland and live out of a suitcase, but the illusion of this fantasy soon evaporated when I slowly realised that I’m still my regular old self, just in a different location with a few less things than usual. I also remember regularly thinking of stuff I’d left back home that I kind of wished I had taken with me. But, if you’ve ever tried packing for a year overseas you’ll know the struggle of ‘how do I know if I will need this at some point during the next year’. Save yourself the hassle and just flip a coin I reckon; heads I need it, tails I don’t. Moreover, for reasons I don’t understand, I seem to do everything in life the hard way and I didn’t know how long I was going to be away for, so imagine my dilemma of trying to pack for an unspecified amount of time, not knowing which seasons I would withstand or if I’d be working or even what kind of activities I’d be doing. I didn’t want to bring too much stuff but equally I didn’t want to leave things and have to buy them again, especially expensive stuff like my wetsuit for surfing. After eight months or so I had a good sense of the things that I didn’t really need or wasn’t using much, so I posted a care package of unloved items to my address in England for my long-suffering parent to deal with (thanks Mum!). This is not a good way to get rid of stuff because the postal service between Australia and the UK is, well, put it this way; if you just threw your parcel in the sea the ocean currents would probably carry it to its destination faster and with less damage. You also wouldn’t need to take out a personal loan to pay the shipping.
Even so, here I am in New Zealand with all this stuff. Do I really need it? Should I try a bit harder to be more like the trendy travelling hipster minimalist I almost am but not really? I’m conflicted. On the one hand, you don’t need anything to be happy, because true happiness doesn’t come from your belongings it comes from within. On the other hand, a lot of my stuff is just kind of nice to have, especially when you’re a long way from home by yourself.
I’ll give you an example. I’m not into fashion. It confuses me. If I’m wearing something fashionable it’s a genuine fluke, like those mysterious occasions when I leave the house late but arrive at my destination early. However, I really like jackets of various kinds. I’m like a jacket magpie. If I see a good one, jacket fever takes over like a kind of law-abiding kleptomania and that’s how I end up with more jackets than I really need. I have a few in my travel collection, which makes no practical sense because jackets are bulky and I pretty much have to wear as many of them as possible whenever I am changing my location because they will not physically fit in my suitcase. But I won’t get rid of my jackets. They bring me joy. They make me feel, I don’t know, almost cool. Almost cool.
So if I’m okay with having stuff, why was I aspiring to be a minimalist in the first place? I became curious and looked into it a bit. I learned that minimalism is more about simplifying your life than how much stuff you have; freeing yourself of debt, unnecessary commitments and even giving up impulsive other-thinking to clear space in the mind. My girl Sorelle Amore paints an inspiring picture of her life as a minimalist traveller (check her out here) and, unlike me, she’s very cool indeed. I’m secretly a bit old–school, preferring to live a simple existence where I try to dip into the 21st century only when I need or want to, not in a weird Amish way but just so that I don’t get sucked into the treacherous whirlpool of reliance on modern technology. I don’t like this whole consumer culture where we’re led to believe that satisfaction is found in the latest whatever, because it isn’t, and the level of consumption I see among many is alarmingly unsustainable. I don’t wish to get on an environmental rant here, but getting the next model phone every year or brand new car every three years or buying ‘fast fashion’ creates a massive amount of waste as well as CO2 emissions in the production of these throwaway products. It’s not good.
When I thought about it, I realised that I’ve been rebelling against this consumer-culture paradigm for years. My camera is the 2016 model, my phone is five years old, my laptop eight, and I’ve been wearing the same North Face jacket for nine years. In fact, when it comes to camera gear I make a point of buying the model that’s been out for a year or two, because I just don’t care about having the latest thing but mainly because it’s a lot cheaper. I prefer to buy a product that is high quality and look after it so it lasts a long time. I refuse to spend a lot of money on a phone contract, I buy old cars, and I would rather people gift me experiences than physical presents for birthdays and Christmas. Like a spring clean after a long winter, it feels good to get rid of stuff you don’t use or need. I did this before I left the UK. It was emancipating to give away old clothes that didn’t fit my personality anymore, to throw crumpled pages of crappy writing from a long time ago in the recycling, and chuck out stuff that I only kept because I didn’t know what else to do with it. I became quite ruthless with it. I think I would be even more ruthless now, knowing what I actually need and use regularly.
Yet, I still have quite a lot of stuff. I’m kind of okay with it, though. Most of it is of low monetary, high sentimental value and my Achilles heel is books. I love books; I love reading them, I love having them, I love looking at them on a shelf. I give away the ones I didn’t enjoy, but I hang on to the good ones. I think as long as the stuff you have brings you enjoyment or enables you to do things that make you happy, and you don’t constantly buy products to fill a void in your wellbeing, it’s fine to have stuff, especially too many jackets that don’t fit in your suitcase.
However, I thought of some guidelines for myself to fend off the accumulation of unnecessary things, and maybe they’ll help you too. Only keep clothes that you actually like and want to wear. It makes sense to digitise notes rather than have them on paper. You don’t need eight photos of the same thing. You don’t have to keep old electronic files. Focus on one thing at a time rather than multitasking. Letting go of the past is usually better than hanging on to it.