For the last 10 years I have been simplifying my life. A traumatic event started it off, as it does so often — in my case, divorce. But even though I had been shedding possessions since the divorce, it was another trauma — my mother’s sudden and unexpected death last August — that really made me appreciate minimalism.
My mother was the opposite of a minimalist. A wonderfully intelligent and original artist, she surrounded herself with unusual objects. Her living environment was colorful, cluttered, and fascinating: a constantly changing museum of the inspiring and quirky. And for many years I was like her, gathering around myself all sorts of interesting and offbeat items.
But my divorce prompted me to shed my load as I rethought where I was trying to find happiness (from others, from material goods), identified my life priorities (which include lots of travel), and considered my probable living trajectory (moving every few years). I began to give away many of the things I’d accumulated and appreciate a less crowded living space.
Then my mother’s death and the experience of clearing out her apartment renewed and strengthened my decision not to surround myself with things.
My mother lived in Michigan and my sister and I live in Southern California. Mom had always been introverted, and since her divorce and move, she’d also become somewhat reclusive. Although she and my sister and I emailed, called, and exchanged cards and presents over the years, we hadn’t seen her for a long time — in fact, my sister and nephew were just two months away from visiting Mom for the first time in many years when Mom died in her sleep.
So, when I first walked into her apartment, I was immediately overwhelmed not only by the knowledge of her absence — even though I’d never seen the place before, it was so obviously hers that my chest hurt — but by the magnitude of the task before me. Mom was a collector, and she didn’t waste her time collecting stuff that could be easily and unsentimentally shoveled off to Salvation Army. No, she collected antiques and animal skulls and artwork and Asian statuary. None of it labeled. None of it appraised.
My sister and I undertook the heartbreaking task of clearing out our mother’s stuff as quickly and efficiently as we could. Helped by our mother’s two best friends, we sorted, gave away, or donated about 90 percent of all those interesting things our mother had spent her life and her savings collecting. We only set aside the most sentimentally meaningful or materially valuable goods to be shipped back to Southern California. It was awful, but it was necessary — we couldn’t afford to ship all her possessions, we didn’t want many of them, and we couldn’t absorb so much stuff into our own small apartments, anyway. But it felt, somehow, like a betrayal of what she considered important in her life to give so much of her things to charity.
And during all this, as we invited Mom’s close friends and their families to haul off her furniture and took Jeep-loads of unwanted items to the local Salvation Army, one of those friends turned to me and said, “oh, and don’t forget your mother’s storage unit.”
Storage unit? It had been bad enough to open my mother’s deep Asian cabinets and find rows of statues and books within them; things she’d accumulated that hadn’t even been exposed to the light of day — she also has a storage unit?
At first, shaken, my sister and I discussed keeping the unit and putting the things we intended to keep into it to ship later, when the freshness of our grief had subsided. But then we opened the unit and looked through it and realized that almost everything in the unit was, well, destined for donation. Don’t get me wrong — it was neat stuff. More statues, a collection of martial arts equipment from my mother’s ninjutsu days (she was among the Dalai Lama’s bodyguards during one of his visits to Ann Arbor — Mom had an interesting life), art supplies, collectibles my sister and I remembered from our childhood that it seemed Mom couldn’t throw away but didn’t want to display … good, usable, neat stuff. But with a very few exceptions, it was all stuff we either hauled to the nearby Dumpster or carted to Salvation Army.
Almost a year later, Mom’s possessions continue to haunt us. Some of it is personally meaningful, and we’ve made room in our lives for those objects. But most of it is just interesting clutter — like the hundred Asian statues and artifacts we paid to have appraised and are now trying to sell, piece by piece. They’re nice statues; none of them is amazingly valuable, but together they’re worth selling. But that’s a slow process, so my sister’s hall closet is stuffed with boxes of Buddhas while her vacuum cleaner, which used to be stored there, moves from room to room. And although for various reasons my sister’s bearing the brunt of the storage, I’ve also ended up with a few statues I don’t want but am obliged to keep for the two of us until I can find a buyer who wants them.
I’m not a true minimalist — the Western minimalist aesthetic is too cold and modern for my taste. But I prefer to live in airy, light-filled spaces, and I own less than many of my peers. Even so, sometimes I look around myself and think with a touch of anxiety, “I own too much.” I’m eager to get rid of these statues. If I don’t love it or use it on a regular basis, I don’t want to own it.
Moreover, I don’t want to inflict on my family the guilt I felt giving away my mother’s possessions. I’d rather leave my heirs with some cash and, I hope, a few good memories. The memories won’t take up space, and the cash can be spent on what they need, not on what I’ve accumulated.
I have no doubt that my mother loved and took pleasure in much of what she owned. But I’m not so sure about the things that were crammed away in cupboards or stuffed in storage. I can only guess at her motives for keeping it. Maybe she intended to get rid of it eventually. I don’t know. Certainly she never intended to die so young and so suddenly. But then again, none of us do.
So think about what would happen if you died tonight. Do you have a will? What are you leaving behind for your heirs? How much of it do you really love and want to own? How much of it has simply accumulated over time? How much effort will it take your heirs to go through it? Does any of it need to be appraised? Do your heirs know where all of it is?
If you’re keeping something around only because you think your heirs will want it someday, take the time to find out if they truly do. Remember, they may not want to hurt your feelings by saying “no,” so you’ll need to approach this honestly. If they want it and you don’t need it, give it to them now. If neither of you want it, lighten your load by selling it or giving it away. You’ll feel much better without that unwanted furniture, or china collection, or boat, weighing you down — and so, eventually, will your loved ones.