Monks and Minimalism (2017)

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The only difference between a monastic cell and a minimalist bedroom is size.” — Jacob Earl

     By nature I am a collector. I love detail and holding little things, and have trouble letting things go. I want to live a life that could be taken on the run, but I have a little jar full of the little plastic things you get in a kinder egg. That’s literal trash. I have no idea what I think I’m going to do with these things other than eventually throw them out, but I can’t bring myself to do it yet. It gets so cold living in a house without coloured paper on the ceiling or little lights and notes from friends taped everywhere. There’s certainly a balance between pack rat and monk, but despite my monk-like aspirations, I trend pack rat. 


     I got thinking about Monks after a visit to the Franciscan monastery in Fiesole, near Florence. It’s this big building up on top of a hill with a great outdoor space and good light inside. The Monks themselves would live in these tiny little cells (the origin of the word cell is to refer to a monk’s quarters) with just a bed and a picture of Jesus. To become a monk they would have to give up all their worldy stuff and spend their time thinking (about god in this case), but the idea of giving up stuff to make thought easier appeals to me. St. Francis (for whom the order was named) was this rich man who got too into classic literature (of all things) and felt gross about it. According to the the story he had a dream where Jesus told him to sell all his stuff, so he sold all his stuff and funded the creation of a monastic order. The idea was that all these things were getting in the way of his relationship with God, and only through meditation and being uncomfortable all the time with no distractions could true apotheosis be achieved. This wasn’t a new idea, even at the time, but it was less kinky than the competing Monastic Order in town, the Dominicans, who were very “into” fire.

     Getting stuff out of your life so you can actually focus is something everyone discovers at some point, but it’s tough, and it’s slow. And it’s hard to follow through. Here’s some questions to ask yourself as you clean up your life this New Years:

  • Do I want to carry this forever? 

  • Can I remember it if I’m not looking at it, and therefore do I keep it? 

  • Am I just keeping this out of a strange obligation? 

  • Is this just getting in my way?


     According to books and articles you’re supposed to decide which things are important, look at each thing and ask yourself if it brings you joy. Well, for me the imperative is slightly more pressing as I have to ask myself what I want to carry back across the ocean. I’m studying abroad and I’ve got to literally carry everything I own back across the ocean pretty freaking soon. I barely made it here, but I did pack about a years worth of stuff in two bags. Barely. If feel like if I can fit a year into two bags I can discard everything else spread across Washington, Alaska and Arizona in addition to the stuff I have here in Italy. I’ve been reading Umberto Nobile’s account of his polar expeditions where he lists every individual thing they brought on board and the weight of each, including his scientists and engineers (for whom he also wrote a kind sentence about — next to their exact weight). I’ve been trying to think of my new life travelling like I’m on an Airship on a scientific mission to the North Pole, where every pound counts, and to get higher and go faster and let more people on board I need to toss everything non-essential onto the polar ice pack. I want to lose enough stuff that I could pack up and move at a moments notice, which means I need to consolidate four rooms and three houses into a suitcase or two. Not easy, but I think possible. Unlike Nobile though, I’m not about to start eating exclusively pemmican and chocolate, no matter how efficient a ration that is.


     Clothes are fairly non-negotiable, I can cycle some of the underwear with broken elastic and socks with holes out for new versions, but the number stays about the same. The good news here is that I only absolutely need the clothes I brought with me here to Italy, about two weeks worth. Everything else can be discarded. Transitioning to solely white shirts would be ideal as it would make laundry easier but is out of the question as I do too much that would ruin a white shirt. I seem to encounter a lot of paint and leaking pens, for a notional filmmaker. A few undershirts make the white shirts sustainable (enough whites for a load). Other than that I have a four pairs of pants that I feel good about, I trend towards too formal so a few pairs of dark pants serve me well along with a hat and 26 or so ties. I know that’s a lot of ties, but since I wear essentially the same outfit every day the ties keep it fresh, and are small.

     Not having a real job I don’t require a uniform, and my normal mid-century train traveller look works for most occasions, despite the ribbing I receive from my friends. I like to think I look like an extra from a 1950s movie but really I just look like Professor Lupin when the kids meet him on the train, tired and lost and disheveled. But that is just my disheveled nature exuding itself, no matter what I do it come out like I slept in my clothes. I put a real suit on once and it looked like I’d slept in it. The clothes thing is easy though, ultimately, because I have four or so instances of each thing and cycle through my ties so It always looks like I changed my clothes, instead of what I really do which is wake up in a panic and throw back on the clothes I just took off, change my tie and grab change for a coffee on the way to class.

     Shoes are a problem. I only really wear the one pair of leather boots, but across my many places I have the formal pair (identical to standard but black and clean), slippers, sandals, hiking boots, two worn out (destroyed) versions of all listed and wading boots. All have their uses, but are usually too specific to either throw out or use everyday. You can’t really wade to the market, y’know. When I touch back down in AK or AZ I can throw out the worn out shoes, but I don’t know what to do with the wading boots or the sandals. I suppose I gotta hang on to them, in case I go fishing or to the beach. But that impulse of



is something I keep saying running into and I can’t figure how to move past it.

I can’t throw this away! I bought these shoes to hike that one mountain and then never looked at them again! What If I need them again! They were 70 bucks!

     Then I suppose sell them? If they really carry all that value, they shouldn’t be in the back of the closet. You’re not using them. Used hiking boots are no valuable antique that’s going to get more valuable, and something you don’t use has no worth at all. Value is more complex than money, and utilitarian items like hiking boots have no value at all unless they are actively being used or traded.
     I used to run into this problem with notebooks as well, I would find myself too worried about ruining them to use them, but in truth the only ruined notebook is the one that sits on the shelf empty. Potential value is always wasted. Get use out of your things or throw them away. Selling is also a form of throwing away, but don’t get too caught up in selling things that you simply line up all your things so that they can go out the door and they sit there in the way for six years. This is definitely just an example, not a real story I’m remembering. Always keep in mind It’s possible that no one wants your used hiking boots or your scratched buddy holly CD, despite that being the album that you and your ex first made out to.

     The problem with all that good advice is that when I actually get to the the pair of busted cheap-ass boots I wore five years ago I say “but these are the shoes I first climbed the leaning tower of Pisa in!” or “These are the shoes I wore during freshman year of college, remember all that stuff that happened? Right here in these boots!” I’m like a die-hard fan of my own rock star life, even though it was mostly going to Safeway and walking home drunk after the busses stopped running. That’s not a healthy relationship, if you really were a die-hard fan of the rockstar that is you, you’d be a crazy stalker.

“You’re keeping this guy’s broken boots from freshman year of college? Why?”
“I can smell the memories”

Let the past die. Besides, you remember walking home after the busses stop running, it was over three miles of freezing forest, you peed in a ditch. That’s pretty firmly recorded in there. Let it go. 
     My biggest sources of weight other than clothes are paper and vinyl records. I have a considerable record collection distributed across my several locations around the globe, and in my new consolidation project I’ll need to dissolve them into one concentrated elixir of the greatest music available. The trouble here is the same problem that has run through this whole article, sentimentality. The memories I have of Glenn Miller’s Greatest Hits, regardless of the objective musical value of midwestern sock-hop white jazz, makes it difficult to discard that six-record box set. If I keep any of these records I’ll need to focus on just keeping the small box I brought with me to Washington when I left Alaska, as that is the cream of the available music. I went through everything when I left and created a hard-won list of favorite music, and I just need to do that again, but in Washington and lose everything in Alaska. I have Spotify anyway, and that’s what I’ve been using here to great effect, especially after buying a nice speaker, I didn’t realise how inside my own head my headphones were making me.
     But back to paper: my small notebooks are some my greatest joys, they contain every important thought I’ve had since 2008, but class notes, syllabuses, flyers, ticket stubs, notes from friends (and pilfered artworks from same), books I’m trying to read and other ephemera clutter up the bottom of my bag with sentimentality and weight. Paper is dense, and not every thing I have is strictly necessary. No one piece of paper feels like the 40 pound millstone around my neck that they all are. So I’ve been adapting the same process I’ve been approaching this larger project with and sitting down looking at a wall and remembering every important piece of paper. If I can easily call it up, it’s important and worth keeping. If not, trash.


     My singular problem keeping me from monk-like severity is my sentimentality. I imagine that I will forget, and that feels bad, so I keep physical reminders of important things, which makes sense until you start getting a bigger box system to organize your boxes of tickets. Sentimentality has it’s place but I have to constantly remind myself that that place is not in my carefully weighed life. That fear of forgetting has always plagued me, but forgetting is okay. It frees up the mind for larger ideas that take up more space, or even just whitespace, like my mind is an e. e. cumings poem that makes use of the space around the words.

     It also sometimes feels like I can’t get rid of something becsause that’s like I was betraying the thing, I didn’t want to hurt this book’s feelings, because really it was lovely book, well made, it just wasn’t for me. I never told anyone this, but in therapy one day my therapist just looked me in the eyes and guessed that I was keeping stuff out of a strange politeness, and it turns out this is very common. That’s one of the best things about therapy, finding out that the weird things about yourself you never tell anyone are actually comon and named, usually.

     Is sentimentality just exaggerated politeness to a self you don’t know? I don’t know, but I do know that I haven’t seen the inside of the boxes I packed my apartment in Washington into a year ago and I can’t even remember what was in there. I’ve thought about my dad’s old leather jacket, my cat, my little youtube lights, my sweet comfy chair and my piano. I have no idea what I filled my apartment with but from here I could just throw it out onto the pack and move on.
     I’m the one writing this article but as you could probably tell, I have my problems with this whole thing. I’m like Michelangelo’s David, poised just before the plot, full of hope, but I don’t know how any of this will shake out, it’s too big. But I’m hopeful. I’ll check back in later. Good luck, drink water. 

Originally Published Here: 

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