Thursday, June 5, 2014


On one of the message boards I frequent occasionally, one of the posters decided a few days ago to poll the other forum members about moments of clarity they've had. Turning points in life, crossroads, big events, little stones of fate which precipitated avalanches, whatever. The big moments which make you Rethink Things, look at everything you do and and then make a change, and hopefully for the better.

There were some doozies there. Stories of road trips gone bad. Girlfriends who'd taken everything but the toothbrush and the dog. Lessons learned from grizzled old folk in dusty towns in Nebraska, high tales of adventure and the like.

I may be making some of that up. I've been running a bit short on sleep again and I'm having trouble distinguishing dreams from reality. Isn't that right, Mr. Toad?


I started to think about my own. All the little or big decisions I've made which have altered the course of my life over the last, say, ten or fifteen years. Giving up most of my drinking, exercising regularly, learning personal finance. They've all spun off of various events, some little, some big.

The keystone for most of them, though, the granddaddy of them all was one Sunday morning when I found myself standing in front of my bedroom closet thinking to myself: "What the hell is all this shit?"

That's the first step which sent me down my current path of minimalism. I cleaned out my bedroom closet. Wound up tossing, donating, selling, recycling or just flat out giving away about half the stuff in there. Then I went and did the living room closet. And I kept doing it, over and over, until I found myself with a fraction of the things I've once had. It was hard.

The spark behind it all is a bit of a story.

I grew up poor—dirt poor—in a part of the country which isn't exactly known for riches. We did well, but money was never great and I lived far enough from my neighbors or nearby towns that I tended to hoard entertainment like we hoarded anything else useful back in those days: up until I was about thirty, I never, ever, sold or gave away a book. I'd even be careful lending books to people, as if a book were something more than a collection of words on crushed and treated wood.

Times were tight and if you had something like a book, you read and reread it because you never knew if you'd get another in the next few weeks. A trip to the library was like a pilgrimage to Mecca. It only happened rarely and was something you anticipated for weeks in advance and thought about for weeks afterward. When we finally got a VCR, we mostly used it to record and store movies which aired on TV. We had walls of carefully labelled videotapes, eventually boxes of them.

I took some of that attitude with me when I left home, went to college, found myself a real job. I'd hoard media: books, movies, and the like. Non-media things would stay as well. Old clothing. Things from childhood. Things passed down from my parents. I had mementos from dozens of places, detritus from years of life. Appliances and electronics. Computer stuff. None of it was trash, exactly, but very little of it was useful or indeed usable.

My apartment was becoming too small to hold all the things.

There came a time when some Shit Almost Went Down at work. I can't be particularly specific about what it was, even now, only to say that if it panned out the way I feared it would pan out, it would have meant job losses and terrible shake-ups. It was years ago, very few of the people involved are around still, a few of the people who knew what was happening are now dead. Perhaps in a few years, it'll be another story to tell, but let's just say that I lost about four months of sleep.

At that time, I knew very little about personal finance. I was years out from paying off my loans. My apartment was crowded with stuff to the point where I was thinking about buying a house (with what money, I have no idea) or moving to a bigger apartment to hold all my things.

I'd been caught with my pants down and I didn't even know enough about money to realize why.

The threat eventually passed. Everything began to slide back into normality. One Sunday morning, fresh from paying off my bills and in a particularly bad mood, I stood in front of my closet and I opened the door and I began to pull boxes out.

I was in a fey mood, like a stranger had possessed me. I felt like I'd kicked over a rock in a field somewhere and watched earwigs scatter every which way.

I opened all the boxes, looked at the contents with fresh eyes. It was one of those moments when a spotlight just flashed on in the back of my brain and I could see one thing in fine detail: this was all crap.

I had boxes full of fifth grade homework. Computer components which were eight years out of date. Utensils from my grandparents which I'd never use. What bachelor needs a spice rack with kittens painted on it? I had one of those. I had broken VCR's I'd never gotten rid of. Clothing I'll never fit back into because I'd have to lose fifty pounds of muscle to do so. Clothing that was musty, old, twelve years out of date. I had a box of rocks. Were they special rocks? NO.

It all went. Brutally, mercilessly and without pity or consideration of nostalgia. I cleaned and sorted and repacked until I could actually stand inside that closet.

Then I did the living room closet. And every six months since then or whenever I'm feeling stressed out, I sweep through my things and get rid of stuff I no longer need.

And as I did that, life went on. I paid off my loans quickly since I had a better clarity of vision. Not great, definitely not by my current standards, but I'd seen what kind of person I could be when I let myself wallow and I knew I could do better.

I started reading about money, learned to clean and organize. I sorted out quite a few things in my life. Gave up all sorts of bad habits which were weighing me down. Those are all different blog posts, however.

And whenever some similar (but not as severe) Shit happens at work these days, I think back to that Sunday morning when I realized that the stuff you own can be a terrible anchor which drags you down if you let it.

I think about all the things which spun off from that—learning about Fuck-You Money, emergency savings, killing debt, making plans Just In Case. Getting in shape physically and mentally. And it all came from one sunny morning when I threw open the doors.

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