25 Years a Minimalist: What I Have Learned

minimal path

I think that Robert Frost sums it up nicely – if you don’t want to read the incredibly long post (sorry), but I have been doing it for a quarter of a century.  I have learned a few things…  Or, you could skip to the very end and just let my Zen-ish quote sum it up. 🙂

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

That Which Had No Name

25 years ago when I started down this path there wasn’t a name for my lifestyle choice.  At least, not that I knew of.  We wore big hair and big clothes.  Cell phones and home computers were rare items.  Telephone answering machines were all the rage – and I, ever the luddite, hated them.  People would call and say to me, “Hi Monica, I know you’re there screening calls, pick up the phone.”  Grrr.  It was like the dark side of the force was just too strong – one’s hand would reach out, even though you didn’t at the soul of your being want to…, and pick up the handset.

Four or five years into my journey, I discovered a book about simplifying one’s life and was thrilled that others were on the same path as me.  I couldn’t buy it fast enough.  I couldn’t wait to see how others were coping with too much abundance.  Simplify Your Life by Elaine St. James was my bible and manifesto for years.

In 2006 or 2007 I noticed something happening on the internet, people were blogging about simplicity and this thing called Minimalism.  As an artist, Minimalism was an art movement that really went nowhere, so it was a little perplexing to me at first and feared for the fate of Minimalism as a lifestyle.  But, it exploded and has become a thing!  It has filtered into mainstream society.  Wow!

But seriously, what’s with the name?

I really don’t like the name, Minimalist, that the blogosphere seemed to grab onto and not let go of, but I guess I don’t get to choose.  It could be much worse I suppose:  Slow-Pokes (for the slow movement), Simpletons (for the simplify your life movement), or Former Hoarder (for the de-clutter movement), etc.  I guess I can learn to live with Minimalist.  But, it still is not quite right.  I have chosen a different path and it is a path of less – and that is how I think of myself, but there is really no name for it and I don’t want to be known as a “Lesser” – for obvious reasons…

For me, Minimalism congers up an image of a monk (I mean person – single hairy man) living an ascetic lifestyle – a sparse bed with a cross or Buddha over it, a table by the bed with a holy book of some kind on it, a sad little desk and chair, and hot plate in the corner sitting on a turned over crate with his abundance of tea making items in an all white dingy room.  And, perhaps even a meditating pillow if the hairy man walks on the wild side.

In reality the Minimalist movement is a continuum of lifestyle-ists that are choosing less.  From the single hairy man that travels the world with only his backpack to the suburbanites that have two cars and choose a smaller than average house filled with less stuff than the norm.

What I really think is going on with this Minimalism thing…

Our society has come full circle.  We came from nomad hunter-gatherers that had to travel light, to religious based trading and farming  societies, to industrialists, to capitalists, to the religion of Consumerism and we now find ourselves feeling entitled, unhappy, discontented, depressed, overworked, in debt, decision-fatigued and devoid of real ties, rituals, and traditions that keep a society happy and grounded.

As religion became less powerful, consumerism became more powerful and since we didn’t find what we were looking for in buying and buying and buying, we now turn to the getting rid of or excavating portion of our history.

At it’s essence, I think minimalism is the search for self; be it the authentic self, or ones true purpose, or contentment, or… whatever one happens to call it.  It is people examining their life though things or lack of things instead of through religion or philosophy.  I am personally searching for the Zen Mind – it is an elusive bugger.  I believe the old adages to be true:  The unexamined life is not worth living and all roads lead to the same place.  Minimalism is just another way for man to search for meaning – in the same way that people turn to religion, philosophy, or self-help books.

I am a little worried, because it takes up a lot of space on the internet these days, that people turning to minimalism are replacing their consumer habits of buying too many things with the consumption of “experiences.”  Many of the experiences I am reading about smack of entitlement (scuba diving in Mexico, Disneyland, parachuting, backpacking through Europe, etc.)  I am not saying experiences are bad, as I think they help employment and the economy more than the buying of cheaply made stuff.  But, an overabundance or collection of experiences is really no different than stuff.

What people are really missing, I suspect, is the deeply creative experience, the personal connection experience, the slow methodical experience – that of strong tradition: holiday gatherings when everyone comes together no matter what, Sunday extended-family meals, weekday family mealtime with no distractions, dad’s and children learning to fish and throw balls in the backyard, mom’s and children learning to cook and sew, etc.  Somehow mom’s and kids shopping at the mall, checking your friends status on Facebook, and texting your grandfather a quick happy birthday just don’t hold the same weight or that unique touch of humanity that the traditions of old did.

Even within my traditional upbringing, the yearly family vacation doesn’t hold a candle to the Thanksgiving and Christmas extended-family gatherings that nobody missed.  No gifts were exchanged and we always went to the same place, but the experience and tradition was more important than those times we went to Disneyland with Mom and Dad.  And when looking back, Disneyland (even though it was fun) does not quite compare to the “every night” family dinner with no distractions.  It didn’t matter if it was home made, picked up, sit down family style restaurant, barbecue or vegetarian – those were the connections and traditions that matter the most.

My Life in Review:

The Path that led to the Path of Minimalism

My minimalist journey started just as I was ending my college career.  The time when one begins to dream of how their life will look:  where will I live, what car will I drive, etc.  My images of such things were a reaction against what my parents life looked like to a certain extent.  I kept the good stuff and chucked what didn’t work for me.

My mother told me I could do anything and have it all.  She had it all.  Marriage, a job, children, the big house, the expensive cars, the swimming pool…  The poor woman never got to rest.  They owned a successful business and Mom worked 24/7.  Dad didn’t.  If she wasn’t working at work, she was cooking dinner, grocery shopping, cleaning, doing the books, child rearing, etc.

I remember watching her and thinking that it’s all just too much.  I would only chose to do some of the things.  Either a career or family, but probably not both.  Why did she have to continue working after work, but Dad didn’t?  As many women of that generation, she was a women’s-libber, just not at home.  I was not signing up for that – and I didn’t.  Life ended up giving me a career instead of a family.  I am not terribly career-driven per se, that is just how it turned out.  I could see myself staying home and raising children and being totally happy with that outcome too.

Just as I was finishing college my mother became terminally ill and I took it upon myself to be the person who took care of her and the home.  I had not yet started a career and so their was nothing really to give up and my mother was the most important person in my life, so of course, I was going to do right by her.

While doing such a difficult and draining thing, I dreamed of being free and traveling the world with just a backpack.  My parents were hoarders-ish, of the generation where you might need it so you don’t throw it away.   (One might need to build a transistor radio out of the broken popcorn maker if the apocalypse comes…)  This generation and it’s values clashed with a time and place where things became cheap, easy to make, and easy to replace.  They kept the old and replaced things with the new because it was easier.  Repair shops became extinct.  It was the perfect storm.

Mom and Dad’s aesthetic was certainly not mine.  I cannot even think in Hoarder Chic.  My brain just can’t function there.  The house drove me crazy and Mom and I clashed when I would take things to Goodwill that shouldn’t have been taken.  I fantasized of small, contemporary-styled homes with no clutter and small fuel-economy cars that were cheap to insure and drive…

The dream of owning a very little amount of stuff really became stuck in my mind, when after my mother died, I had to begin to weed through the two-car garage that held no cars and I sold her precious items at (many) garage sales for pennies on the dollar.  I knew I would definitely chose a different path.  Hoarders do not understand how much their stuff can stress other people out.  It can be very debilitating.  And, in my parents defense, I think they were probably just average people with a lot of clutter (not bug-infested hoarders, as one might be imagining).  I was just very sensitive to the clutter.

My Minimalist Journey – The Road Less Traveled

Before I got the career and before I owned anything of my own, I did travel the world with a backpack after my mother died and it was awesome and full of the “experiences” that many blogs now promote.  It came out of sadness and a life destroyed by fate and death.  I was the proverbial Phoenix rising from the ashes in search of experiences, not things and determined not to be my mother and to take the road less traveled.  I was searching.  I had wonderful adventures, but did not find what I was searching for in the adventure or the experience.  I did find some self-confidence and self-reliance which have been invaluable tools.  And I learned to look at life through a non-American lens, so to say, from another side-ish.

One can travel out of a backpack for only so long.  I felt the need to settle down, probably not permanently, but for a while to rest and regroup.  I had the plan to work, travel more, work, travel again, etc.  It didn’t really turn out that way.  I worked, traveled again, and then fell into teaching.  Once I had the career, travel times became fewer and fewer.  Not because I don’t like to travel, I still do, it is just that I know – travel is not where I will find that which I seek.  Travel is travel for the sake of traveling.  It is a worthy endeavor and full of adventure, but remember the Zen Proverb:

Luke:  “What’s in there?”

Yoda:  “Only what you take with you.”

About 8-9 years into my minimalist journey I came to a point in time where the idea of owning a home appealed to me.  Mostly because I stayed the night at a friends house after visiting Mexico and was inspired by her “simplicity with roots”.  She lived in a cute little co-op that she told me she purchased for some obscenely low amount of money.  Upon researching this, I really liked the idea of owning an inexpensive apartment-style house without having to be mortgage poor.  I bought a co-op and moved, on a wing and a prayer, to a new city to make this dream possible and it has made all the difference in the world (on that road less traveled).

Everyone told me I was crazy to buy such a house and for so many reasons:  it won’t appreciate, fixer upper, neighborhood, you don’t even have a job in that city, etc.  But, the standard American Dream was not my dream.  I wanted freedom from working to pay a mortgage.  I wanted to keep my house at a nice temperature all the time.  I wanted it to be small so that I wouldn’t have to own a lot of crap.  It was self-discipline via square footage.  I wanted no yard to furnish and take care of.  But, most importantly, it was time for me to nest.  I love to travel, but I am a nester – maybe it is an artist thing?

I have owned my little co-op for 15 years (14 of those payment free) and it has given me such peace of mind that words can’t really convey.  I could lose my job and everything would be fine, etc.  The new car I bought 8 years ago cost more than the house when I bought it.  No it has not appreciated all that much (there was a housing crash and depression), but instead of equity in the house, I have my equity in the bank.  Self-discipline is key.

For many years I worked very hard and too many hours and after a long time I became rather stressed and unhappy.  I am now a part-time employee and loving it, but I couldn’t work part-time if I weren’t a minimalist.  At least not for another 15 years or so on the traditional American Dream path.  I can’t imagine working full time ever again (that sound is me knocking on wood).  But, these days I try not to be married to any ideas about outcome and just let things unfold as they will.  I don’t know if I will stay in my little co-op or move, keep my current job or not.  Sometimes I dream of being a snowbird.  The heat in AZ is horrible.  I want to remain open-minded about the future… And as Mr. Spock would advise – be open to the possibilities.

25 Years as a Minimalist

What I learned and/or didn’t learn:

Life is a process – it ebbs and flows for all people, even minimalists.  I have owned very few things, more things, less things, more things, less, etc.  I have travelled more and less.  Been happy and unhappy.  Contented and discontented.  Together and single.  Healthy and not healthy.  I have read and studied religious texts, philosophical books, self-help books, murder mysteries, sci fi novels, no books, many blogs, etc. and still I am searching for the elusive… what?  “Zen Mind?”  I feel there is a cosmic joke to be understood here, but I am not yet understanding it?

Minimalism is how you define it.  My 2 rules are very simple and I have stuck to them for 25 years:  I will only own what fits comfortably into my house/apartment/etc., preferably with nothing in storage (although currently my co-op allots storage for each unit and I have at times used it – it is part of the space that I own).  I will not have any debt, except possibly car / house debt.  I usually keep my cars until they die.  Right now house debt is a non-issue.

Minimalism is not an exercise in deprivation.  Unless you want it to be.  Minimalists can own cars, houses, TV’s, stoves, live in suburbia, have normal toilets that don’t compost, etc.

Minimalism is not a competition (think: keeping up with the Joneses in reverse).  You do not have to count your things.  Minimalism is not a number.

White walls and Ikea furniture does not = minimalism.  Having “stuff” and tchotchkes does not preclude one from being a minimalist.  A minimalists house can be comfortable, colorful, and filled with things that you love. Or not.  It could be furnished with antiques, family heirlooms, thrift store finds, or cheap particle-board furniture.  It is up to you.

Minimalists don’t have to be very organized, OCD-type people. Some of us came to minimalism because we are not.  In my case, it is easier to get rid of things rather than organize them.  2015 is a banner year for me.  I gave up the illusion that I will ever be able to organize anything (I clearly was not given that gene) and I have decided that purging is a much better option.  It only took half a century (almost) to learn this very valuable lesson.

Minimalists do not have to go completely digital.  I have found this to be a goal not worth pursuing.  It is so much easier to file the occasional paper than to try to make every paper in your life into some kind of digital version of itself.  Embrace a small file cabinet – it is ok, really.  I think that those young minimalists who can make this claim have never used anything but digital cameras, ipods, other technologies, and their parents are still alive and they have not yet become the family legacy holders.

Minimalists are not always very techie people who occasionally have to take digital sabbaticals from their overly connected-techie lives.  I have to say that this one kills me every time I see it on some minimalist’s blog because I have to thank minimalism for the path “not taken” on this one.  After seeing the useless effect of email on my life some 10-15 years ago (and I am still stuck with it), I did not join Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. because I do not want to add more useless, time-wasting things to do in my life.  One does not have to give into peer pressure.  People have figured out that I do answer the phone – when I can hear it ringing and I am not engaged with a person in the real world – and I answer texts within a timely manner of just 1-3 days.  Nor do I obsessively check my email.  Once a day, or less, is enough.

Minimalism and saying no to all the excess is a first world issue and a thing born out of wealth and privilege; although some would have you believe that it isn’t.  Choosing or having to live with less is still much more than most people get or have.  Please remember to be respectful and grateful.

And lastly, Minimalism is a constant… ?battle?  That’s not quite right.  Thought process maybe?  Evolution or becoming is probably the best answer?  I am constantly finding things to examine and work on in my life.  Due to my part-time job, 2013 was all about learning to eat at home (mostly) and that turned into learning to shop for the most healthy option that would actually be eaten before it went bad (no wasted food).  2014 was all about single-tasking.  After 1 ½ years my brain feels normal again (it was broken, see this post).  Summer breaks in 2014 and 15 were more de-cluttering times.  I am more minimal than I have been in 10-15 years.

The first half of 2015 was all about the capsule closet.  There was a great deal of trial and tribulation on that front – 1st and 2nd post on that matter.  I have settled on a system much like that of my food shopping strategy.  A little more thinking and evaluating goes a long way toward making better and less choices.

And now, I am currently working on updating the technologies in my life.  This one qualifies as a battle.  It could be long and drawn out…  I have not built the courage yet to start wading through the digital clutter of the past 12 years.  I have decided on one course of action though.  I will no longer have digital music files.  When I have the courage to start wading through Tron-land, I am going to delete my entire iTunes library – all 7,000+ songs.  I have moved to Pandora and will soon be 7,000 songs more minimal.  I only hope I will be able to embrace such a deliberate attitude with the rest of my digital files.  See digital woes post here.

One Last Thought

I like the quote:

“Happiness is not a destination, just a mode of travel.”

And so I would say to you:

Minimalism is not the “be all and end all” of anything, it is just a path to travel – outcome unknown.

It never ends.  Take it with a grain of salt.  I would say that my current location is unknown, my destination is unknown, and the universe, in her infinite wisdom, is probably having a really good Zen-belly laugh.

I can say that for me it does feel better to have less stuff, less work, less stress and to live lightly, but I have only walked in my shoes and can’t honestly say that my life is better or worse than any other human beings given their set of circumstances.

Live long and meditate.

Post written by Monica Gaylor.


14 thoughts on “25 Years a Minimalist: What I Have Learned

  1. Danielle @ No Need For Mars August 25, 2015 / 5:40 am

    Absolutely beautifully written post that was a great start to my morning. I am so intrigued by your term of “Lesser,” and how much wealth that seems to bring you (mental, not necessarily financial). Death and tragedy can inspire so many people to be “lesser.” My boyfriend and I both have had to sift through passed loved ones’ belongings several times–we both decided to never burden someone in that way. Growing up, I realized that you can’t fix a problem with money–and I wished people didn’t try to solve my problems with money. I much would have rather accepted more love. Thank you for the lovely post that I’ll ponder on for the morning.

    • Monica Gaylor August 25, 2015 / 8:27 am


      Thank you for your kind words. I am glad to hear that you will be pondering. I love to ponder and one of the greatest Zen Minds of our time, Pooh Bear, greatly recommends it. 🙂


  2. swissrose January 10, 2016 / 3:13 am

    Hear hear – I’m with you on so many planes here! Yes, I am a Less-ist (is that a less-on?!) but no, all-out white halls of emptiness are not mine and nor will I digitalise my life. You are so right – I keep thinking I want to hear what these young minimalists say when they’re in their 50s and 60s and dealing with true family heirlooms and history…
    I’m breathing a sigh of relief at reading this, so thankyou. I will keep on doing what works – for me! It took a while to find that I am on the right path, after all. We are all WIPs – works in progress (a knitterly term).

  3. carlacram January 10, 2016 / 6:30 pm

    I read this post with great interest as I do feel that minimalism is coming off as ‘faddish’ to some and it’s disappointing. I am only new to ‘minimalism’ or whatever you want to call it. I do however think that some of your comments are very biased towards your own experience. Some people can really embrace going digital and find it far easier. I am 32, so while I did grow up with computers, I also grew up in a very heavy paper based culture and it irritates me how slow companies are to switch to paperless communication. I find it far easier to find something in my online files that when I need to search for a piece of paper. In any case, there is no doubt minimalism has been around in some form for a long long time, but the recent interest is so powerful and so important, because people are struggling with consumerism and debt and the more people who realise life doesn’t have to be that way, the better. Our world, our culture can be so much better, we can do meaningful things and help each other, if we keep sharing the message. Packaging it up in the right way is the key to getting the message out. I think ‘lesser’ sounds like it’s not as good, that you have less and can’t get more. Calling it the right thing, can sometimes be the key to getting people to keep listening. Just my thoughts 🙂

    • Monica Gaylor January 10, 2016 / 8:11 pm

      Hello and thank you for your comment.

      I wanted to take this opportunity to comment on the “Lessor” statement, as based on several comments I think that people are reading it wrong? It states in the post… that I DON’T want to be known as a “Lessor” for obvious reasons… That whole paragraph was about worse names than “Minimalist”. The reason(s) I have such a problem with the name Minimalist is (1) the art movement and what that conjures in my mind and, more importantly, (2) I look around at all that I have and cannot possibly see it as Minimalist. Not only do I have a great deal of stuff (still), less than most I realize, but I have such abundance. I was born lucky – into a middle class wonderful family, a free society, a wealthy society, a society that offers free education to all, a society that treats women equally, and the list goes on and on. The abundance is ongoing and free flowing, for me it doesn’t end and probably won’t in my lifetime. Perhaps a better term for someone such as myself who lives in a ridiculously abundant society and chooses not to partake, except in moderation, would be “Simple Maximalist”, “Simply Abundant”, “Simply Lucky”, or “Non-denominational Buddhist?” I feel at this point in time we are probably stuck with the name.

      I too hate paper. Perhaps that was not clear and I was not speaking to your generation specifically – my bad. In my mind I figured (wrongly so) that my readers would probably be more around my generation and our dealing with physical stuff and paper is different than younger generations (yours) dealing with stuff and paper. I feel you are luckier in that sense. But, people my age and older do not necessarily embrace the digital society as do those who are younger. My statements regarding “filing the occasional paper” were to encourage those who do wish to embrace some minimal aspects that are reasonable and doable for them should and they should not worry about the other aspects. I just can’t see some of my older relatives (70’s and 80’s) trying to go digital. What a waste of time for them! But, they could easily send some stuff off to Goodwill… Personally, I am in the middle of the two extremes and have no wish to go back and digitize old things (that must be kept), nor do I wish to receive paper in the mail anymore. But, as you stated, some companies are slow to adopt the digital – so I chose to go with the flow and file those papers (or throw away) rather than scan, name, create folder, digitally file, etc. It’s just easier.

      My post was specifically dealing with the letting go of stuff, mindless consumerism, debt, etc. But I agree with you – Minimalism is a trend toward downsizing and it is important and a place to start in an abundantly selfish place like America. I hope it will not be a fad (and I honestly don’t think it will be.) But, I think we have a long way to go to get to … “Our world, our culture can be so much better, we can do meaningful things and help each other, if we keep sharing the message.” I have great hope that if we could get through the “selfish consumer phase” of humanity and on to the “betterment and equality for all phase” of humanity… But then, what will we call that movement? “Socialism”, “The Humanity Renaissance”, or (my favorite) “Star Trek Economics?”

      I strongly suspect that “yours” will be a seminal generation in a better, less consumer-y, tomorrow.

      May the force be with you. Monica

      • carlacram January 10, 2016 / 8:16 pm

        Wonderful response, thank you! I am in Australia by the way and we are just as selfish and self-absorbed as the US of A. I just read another article where minimalism was called ‘voluntary simplicity’. I like it, what about you?

      • Monica Gaylor January 10, 2016 / 8:23 pm

        🙂 I do like “Voluntary Simplicity” and darn I wish I had used that in my original post. There is a book by the same name from a long time ago… As you said, the notion has been around a long time, probably forever.

        I should have used “First World Nations” perhaps, but it seems some may be doing better than us?

      • carlacram January 10, 2016 / 8:41 pm

        Many are but because they know no differently! I’m a new mum and I often think what would women in Africa do?

      • Monica Gaylor January 10, 2016 / 9:11 pm

        I know. Me too. My life is held in check when I think of the circumstances less fortunate women of the world face. 😦 It really irks me…

        And congratulations!

        My email: beyondtheouterrimwordpress@gmail.com

  4. Jan Ramsey Brick January 15, 2016 / 1:40 pm

    Voluntary simplicity is a beautiful name… if we have to name it. I call myself a simplicity seeker these days but I too have been paring down my stuff for many years – just a bit more radically in the past year or so. I really enjoyed reading about your journey. Thanks for sharing.

    • Monica Gaylor January 15, 2016 / 2:48 pm

      Ohhh. I like “simplicity seeker” also!! 🙂 Anything with seeker would probably be good when naming things (so much less stress involved that way), because really – do we ever arrive at that which we want…

  5. Jan Ramsey Brick January 15, 2016 / 1:41 pm

    P.S. I love Star Trek too! 🙂

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