Packing for an Overnight in my Tom Bihn Co-Pilot

This weekend, I set off for a quick overnight jaunt, and I’m pretty proud of my packing job: usually I think I’m traveling light if I manage to fit everything I need in a backpack, but this time, the only thing I brought was my Tom Bihn Co-Pilot. Measuring 12″x10″x5″ and holding 10 liters in volume, this bag has been my primary everyday purse for over a year now.

My dad and I were flying Spirit, which restricts you to a single personal item if you don’t want to pay baggage fees, and we were heading straight from the airport to my sister’s performance of Beauty and Bach with Avant Chamber Ballet, so packing light was a priority. My Co-Pilot turned out to be the perfect fit for my first-ever one-night plane trip, and this ended up being the lightest I’ve ever packed for any travel anywhere.

The main trick? In the decade and a half that I’ve owned laptops, I’ve never before traveled without my computer. This time, though, there truly was no point. We went straight from the airport to the show to a late dinner. By the time we finally checked into our hotel, it was past midnight, and I only managed to catch a few hours of sleep before we boarded our shuttle back to the airport for our early morning flight home. As I predicted, my phone and Kindle were ample to keep me entertained and connected.

Computer aside, I was also careful to eliminate other things I typically bring when I travel. Among the things I cut from my usual packing list: a change of clothes (apart from extra underwear); flip flops to wear in the hotel (although they would have fit); soap, shampoo, conditioner; cotton pads and facial toner; makeup; my travel pillow; an eye mask; ear plugs; and a more comprehensive first aid kit.

Here’s everything I did bring and how I packed it all:

In the first side pocket, I had my toiletry bag and a Clif Bar. The toiletry bag contained my toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, face wash, moisturizers with and without SPF, deodorant, hand sanitizer, lavender and peppermint essential oil rollers, nail clippers, and a tiny baggie with two cotton swabs in it.

The front center pocket held a small reusable water bottle. I packed it empty and filled it in the airport once we passed the security checkpoint.

In the second side pocket, I packed a pouch containing the aforementioned extra underwear and an emergency menstrual pad, a spare battery to recharge my electronics, my Tangle Teezer, my ChicoBag Vita (which I used once we landed in Texas to carry the winter jackets we needed in New York), and my electronics bag. The electronics bag held a 2-port USB wall charger, a Micro-USB cable for my Kindle and spare battery, a Lightning cable for my phone, the pair of earbud headphones that came with my phone, and a small lens cleaning cloth.

In the main pocket of the Co-Pilot, I carried my phone, my Kindle, my passport, my boarding passes, a pouch for my glasses, and my Tom Bihn Sidekick. The Sidekick contained tissues, assorted wipes (stain removal, antibacterial, insect repellent, lens cleaning, oil absorbing), a couple of pens, my mini first aid kit (a container of assorted pills and a baggie of assorted bandages), a coin purse, my Filofax (which doubles as a wallet and a planner), my keys, my standard safety kit (a mini flashlight, a whistle, and a compass), and extra hair ties.

And that’s it! It felt almost criminally indulgent to walk through airports carrying so little weight: I kept thinking that I was forgetting something. But I had everything I needed for my overnight trip, and it all fit in my purse with room to spare. I could get used to traveling this minimally.


Linen Closet Makeover

We have several large, long-term organizing and decluttering projects ongoing in our home, but it can be easy to lose motivation and momentum when the end never feels in sight. Last month, I decided I wanted to tackle a smaller, more self-contained project, something that I could start and finish in a short amount of time while still making a visible impact. Our linen closet is the first thing you see when you walk into our bedroom, and it was just the scope I was looking for. With some simple decluttering, rearranging, and repurposing (and, okay, the indulgence of a few new organizational baskets), I was able to achieve the dramatic improvement between these before and after shots.

Here’s are the details, from the top down.

Top Shelf

We used to keep a big red suitcase on the top shelf of our linen closet. It was a good fit for the space, but something we only use once every five years didn’t need to be front and center in an area we pass by many times daily. I found a more out-of-the-way home for the suitcase in a different closet and decided to use this shelf to store the tissue boxes and paper towel rolls we buy in bulk.

Upper-Middle Shelf

This shelf used to be full of old towels we rarely used, but now it’s home to two baskets. The smaller one holds spare toiletries and serves as a convenient, centralized place to look if we need a new bar of soap or an unopened bottle of shampoo. The larger basket holds a spare sheet for our bed and one spare pillowcase for each of the pillows on it. It does not hold the old sheets that only fit a bed we haven’t had since 2016; we took this opportunity to finally get rid of those.

Middle Shelf

This middle shelf of our linen closet was once crammed with assorted linens, but it now holds our newly-streamlined towel collection. We decluttered nearly all of our old towels, most of which were well over a decade old, and treated ourselves to a set of luxurious-yet-affordable new towels from Target. We now have a total of six wash cloths, six hand towels, and six bath sheets: two for each of us, and two for guests. It’s a perfect number. (And, yes, that’s a math pun!)

Lower-Middle Shelf

This shelf was home to some extra comforters, which we only use on the rare occasion when we host an overnight guest during the coldest days of winter. We relocated them to a different closet and made this a cleaning command center. The basket on the left holds all of our laundry supplies: mesh wash bags, soap nuts, wool dryer balls, our laundry room key. The basket on the right contains all the parts and extensions for our cordless vacuum, except that wand in front, of course.

Bottom Shelf

The bottom shelf of our linen closet (also known as the floor) used to contain a plastic storage tub and a paper bag stuffed with paper bags. We moved the tub out of the way — I’ll be honest: sorting through its contents is still pending — and recycled the paper bags. We repurposed this space as a home for the bulk toilet paper that we buy 96 rolls at a time. I was pleasantly surprised that they all fit, with room to spare.

Front and Side

We used to keep our laundry cart in front of our linen closet, but that made it hard to reach the shelves. Instead, we moved the cart to a different area of our bedroom and gave its spot to this darling elephant hamper that we received as a wedding gift. The wreath of flowers on its head is actually the wreath of flowers I wore on my head during our wedding! The elephant holds all of our spare linens that we use infrequently but want to hold on to: some throw blankets, a sleeping bag, a few emergency towels, a picnic blanket. It’s roomy enough to meet our needs while encouraging us to be selective about what we keep.

The shelves in our linen closet narrow on one side, making the resulting space awkward to use. However, as I was reimagining this closet, I finally had the perfect brainstorm for how to make use of that space. I printed out some of my favorite photos from our honeymoon, placed them in 5″x7″ picture frames we had used to hold signs at our wedding, and put one on each shelf (arranged, much to Lawrence’s amusement, in order of elevation). I chose landscapes that featured greens and blues to connect the greens of our bedroom to the right with the blues of our bathroom to the left. By a happy coincidence, the frames even match the elephant hamper! I love the difference these photos made for this space. Now, every time I walk into our bedroom, I’m greeted with the welcoming sight of happy memories — and the relief of a well-organized space!




Spring 2017 Clothing Declutter

A year or two ago, very early on in our interest in more minimalist living, Lawrence and I did a major, systematic declutter of our wardrobes, sorting through over a decade’s worth of accumulated clothing. It was the brand of tidying up that Marie Kondo sells as a one-time, life-changing event. In practice, though, even though our mindset toward our possessions may have permanently changed, the need to periodically clean out our closet didn’t. We’ve found that something as fluid as a wardrobe needs the occasional upkeep, and it was time for ours.

Here’s what we did in our Spring 2017 clothing update:

Routine Decluttering

We went through our dresser and closet, taking stock of our clothing and letting go of those pieces that didn’t fit anymore, were worn out, or we simply never wanted to wear. Even though we started from fairly pared down wardrobes, by the end, we had filled three paper grocery bags with clothing we no longer wanted or needed.

Revisiting Sentimental Boxes

The last time we decluttered our clothing, we came across a number of items that we didn’t wear but wanted to keep for sentimental reasons. We boxed those pieces up and set them aside. This time, when we re-opened those boxes, we realized that we were no longer as attached to some of the contents. We were able to get rid of quite a few things that we hadn’t been ready to part with previously.

Textile Recycling

We took our three paper bags of clothing we no longer wanted to our local Saturday greenmarket for textile recycling. The organization that collects textiles in New York City’s greenmarkets sorts through the collected items, sends those in good condition to secondhand markets for resale, and recycles the rest into lower-grade fiber materials such as insulation. Pretty cool!

New Hangers

In the afterglow of our initial Kondo-inspired decluttering success, I adopted some of her clothing storage suggestions as well: I folded my shirts and pants into neat rectangles and, for the first time in my life, refrained from rolling my socks into balls. However, I’ve been missing my lifelong practice of hanging most of my shirts and pants rather than storing them in drawers. Hanging makes it easier to see when we’re running low on clean clothes and faster to put away the laundry. Plus, I like having the big-picture view of my wardrobe at a glance. We sprung for some of those slim hangers — plastic, not velvet — which look great and markedly increased the hanging capacity of our closet.

Consolidating Drawers

Since we hung up some of the clothing we had previously stored in our shared dresser, we were able to consolidate what was previously seven stuffed dresser drawers into six loosely-packed ones. It feels weirdly luxurious to have unused storage space!

Filling Gaps

While we were taking stock of our clothing, we also used the opportunity to take note of any obvious gaps in our wardrobes and fill the holes we found. For example, we replenished Lawrence’s supply of undershirts, and I got a couple of cardigans that have added layering options to my wardrobe.


Why I Travel Carry-On Only

The Backstory

It all started with a lost suitcase.

I was a college sophomore, on my way back to school from Thanksgiving Break. I had a backpack slung over my shoulders and a plastic grocery bag in hand, filled with the frozen leftover turkey my mother had sent with me. I heaved my big tan suitcase into the cargo hold of a Greyhound bus and climbed on board.

By the time we pulled into my stop hours later, my suitcase was nowhere to be found. The new winter coat I’d bought that morning, the textbooks I needed to study for my finals, my favorite bell-sleeved shirt that I can picture to this day: I never saw any of these again. I was left with a thawing turkey carcass, a mess of bureaucratic claims procedures that never resulted in any recovery or compensation, and the stress of trying to replace hundreds of dollars of textbooks before my exams.

After that experience, I bought a new suitcase — cherry red this time — and diligently picked a window seat above the cargo hold every time I boarded a Greyhound bus. At each stop, I stared daggers at the passengers retrieving their bags, ready to sound the alarm should they take mine instead of their own. To nobody’s surprise, my anxious vigilance never amounted to anything, and I soon tired of this ritual. By the time my college days were behind me, so were my days of traveling with a suitcase.

In May 2011, I carried everything I needed for a two-week trip to Seattle, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas in this backpack and purse. According to my journal, they contained “my laptop, two books, three games, and gifts for five people.”

The Benefits

Of course, there’s why I started, and then there’s why I continue. Even without the traumatic tale of my lost suitcase, I would probably still have found my way to traveling carry-on only, eventually. As I’ve honed this practice over the past decade, I’ve reaped so many benefits from it that, these days, I actually feel grateful that I lost my suitcase so many years ago and started down the path toward minimalist travel. Here are some of those benefits:

Peace of Mind

The first time I visited Florida, my family flew into Orlando on Christmas Day. I don’t remember what year it was, but I was probably in my early teens. What I do remember is that our suitcase didn’t make it to Orlando with us, and we spent Christmas Day wandering around a souvenir shop looking for a cheap t-shirt to buy so that we would have a change of clothes. When I travel carry-on only, I never have to worry about my bags getting lost, stolen, or delayed in transit. I never have to worry that a stranger is going to rifle through my belongings. I never have to worry that I’ll need something and not have it with me. That’s some pretty powerful peace of mind.


Last fall, my mother and I traveled together to Dallas to visit my sister, who had recently moved there. Our flight was at 1pm. I would have been content to walk out my front door at 11am, but my mother insisted that we leave by 10. We took the subway to the bus to LaGuardia, got through security, and were seated at our gate before 11, a full two hours before our scheduled departure. I know a lot of people who like to get to the airport really early, but I am not one of those people. I love that traveling carry-on only means I never have to wait in line to check a bag before my flight or wait at a baggage carousel to reclaim it after I land. Moreover, I’m able to make the most of my time at my destination because I don’t need to drop off my bags at my hotel (or worse, wait for a hotel’s check-in time in order to drop off my bags) before I get started on my itinerary.

In November 2015, this small daypack and purse were all I brought with me on an 8-day trip to Atlanta, Montgomery, and New Orleans. The daypack weighed 13.5 pounds, including a 4.5 pound laptop.

That flight to Dallas last fall was on Spirit, one of a handful of budget airlines that offer low base fares by making customary-but-nonessential services, like in-flight beverages and snacks, extra à la carte charges. One of the hallmarks of these budget airlines is that they generally only allow each passenger to bring one personal item on board as part of the base fare; a full-sized carry-on costs extra. I was able to stuff my purse into my backpack, which I then carried on board as my personal item. Sure, the space was a little tight, but that round trip flight from New York to Dallas? It cost $76/person. I’m also able to save money (and the environment!) by walking and taking public transportation, something that would be a lot more cumbersome if I had a big suitcase in tow.


When I limit how much I bring on a trip, I get to be in control of my travels, instead of letting my stuff dictate what I do. Last summer, Lawrence and I flew out of New York at 7 one morning and landed in Minneapolis three hours and one time zone change later at just after 9am local time. We walked out of the airport and onto a train, transferred to a bus, and joined the line outside cult classic greasy spoon diner Al’s Breakfast in plenty of time for an enormous brunch. After that, we went to Weisman Art Museum, got lost and then found again around the campus of the University of Minnesota, walked across the Mississippi River on Stone Arch Bridge, visited Mill City Museum, and meandered for miles before finally arriving at our AirBnB that evening. (That’s what I call a… wait for it… possible day!) Because we had packed light, we didn’t have to wait for our bags at the airport or drop them off at our accommodations. We had the freedom to wander off the beaten path without our bags encumbering us, and we were able to enjoy a full day of exploring on our travel day.

Posing for a photo in my “Connie with Large Objects” series at Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, my backpack and purse still in tow.

Ultimately, the biggest boon of minimalist travel is freedom. Traveling light saves me time, money, and hassle. My possessions don’t limit my choices, impede my mobility, or take up mental space, so I’m able to give my full attention to experiencing my destination. Not being reliant on and responsible for so many objects also gives my travels a sense of spaciousness. When I get away, it truly feels like a getaway.

We modify our behavior in countless small ways in order to accommodate our belongings, and we may not notice most of them until we stop. For example, I love being able to wash my hands of the overhead rack competition. Whenever I fly, I notice my fellow passengers lining up at the gate well before their boarding group is called, presumably because they want to make sure they can secure space in the overhead luggage racks for their carry-on suitcases. Meanwhile, I wait comfortably in my seat, make one last bathroom run, stretch my legs before settling in for a long flight, or buy a last-minute snack. I don’t have to worry about lining up early because I know my bags can fit comfortably under the seat in front of me, even on budget airlines. It may be a small thing, but it’s the feeling of freedom.

The backpack I brought on an 11-day trip to Burlington, Montréal, Québec, and Halifax in June–July 2016 fit easily under the seat in front of me on my way back from Canada.

The Exception

In less than two weeks, Lawrence and I are setting off on a three-week trip to China. It will be his first time in Asia and his first opportunity to meet most of my extended family. This week, for the first time in many years, I pulled out that old cherry red suitcase I bought my sophomore year of college. We need it because a trip to China for us necessarily means bringing the culturally requisite gifts for my relatives. The items for our own use will still go in our carry-ons.

My trips to China always feel complicated to me, in a way that can be hard to dissect or explain. I have an American body and a Chinese face, American sensibilities and a Chinese name. I’m embedded in the complex social web of relational give-and-take, but I don’t know the rules of the game. Even as I look forward to seeing my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins for the first time in five years, to introducing my American fiancé to the country of my birth, and to filling my travel journal with new adventures, this visit (like all visits to China) still feels laden with a sense of duty — to the family I barely know and the culture I barely understand, both of whom I must nevertheless do my best to honor.

Sometimes, it feels like part of that weight is embodied in this suitcase I’d rather not carry and the gifts I’m struggling to select, with which I’ll fill it. I genuinely enjoy gift-giving and I take pride in painstakingly picking the perfect present for each person (say that five times fast!), but it’s tough when I know so little about my recipients, there’s a minefield of cultural norms I need to avoid violating, and my desire to minimize is faced with obligatory materialism. Usually the best part of giving is seeing my recipients’ reactions, but this time, I think I might be happiest of all simply to relieve myself of the responsibility of all those possessions so that I will be free to travel lightly across the country across the world.

My attempt at assembling some “American snacks” for my Chinese relatives.



A Book Lover’s Guide to Minimalism

I have been a lifelong lover of the written word.

My childhood summers were spent devouring books by the dozens from the local library. Most of my meager weekly allowance in high school went to my town’s Barnes & Noble, where I spent stolen Saturday afternoons curled up on a cushy armchair with a novel. And more times than I can count in my adult life, I’ve pulled myself away from an engrossing story only after realizing the morning sun was already peeking over the horizon.

What I’m trying to say is that by the time I started thinking about minimalism, every inch of my bookshelf was stacked double with paper tomes. Also, my fiancé, Lawrence, likes to read at least five books at a time, and his collection was several times the size of mine.

However, over the past couple of years, we’ve managed to substantially reduce the number of books we own (my shelf is now single-stacked!) while still keeping a healthy home library. Best of all, we were able to declutter our books without feeling any strain on our reading habits. Here’s how we did it.

Step 1: The Mindset Shift

For many years, it simply never occurred to me that I didn’t have to keep every book I ever owned forever. As an immigrant child of immigrants, my family didn’t start out with an inherited library. Every book we owned was one we ourselves acquired, through book giveaways, used book sales, and the occasional bookstore indulgence. Every book meant the reassurance of having a possession. Every book was a precious object. Even if I had never read it, even if my interest in the subject had waned in the years (or decades) since its acquisition, the book was still a valuable part of my collection.

The most important mental shift I had to make was from a mindset of scarcity to one of abundance. It seems obvious in hindsight, but the evolution of my circumstances was so gradual that I never really noticed the change. I no longer had a scarcity of books. I now had an abundance of books. I was no longer the little girl who had to scrimp and save for a month or wait for her mom to drive her to the library in order to access a new book. Instead of reading my books over and over again, I was acquiring new books faster than I could read them. I was surrounded by books; the world was full of more books than I could imagine; and without even leaving my home, I could click a few buttons on my computer, and someone would bring books to my door a few days later.

Not only could I afford to be picky about my books, but I had no other choice. The reality is that even if I read 50 new books every year (I don’t) and live to 100 (I probably won’t), I would only read 5000 books in my lifetime. And that’s assuming that I read 50 books between the day I was born and my first birthday, which I promise you did not happen. Regardless of whether I’m conscientious of it, every time I choose to read one book, I’m forgoing the chance to read another. Since that’s true no matter what, I might as well make the most of my opportunity to read by:

  1. not finishing books I don’t like just because I already started them
  2. not reading books I’m not interested in just because I already bought them
  3. not keeping books I don’t want just because I already own them

Believe me, as a book-loving perfectionist, I know it can be hard to let go of these guilts. But I can tell you that it’s pretty liberating when you do. Life is already full of so many obligations. Why create and enforce extra ones for ourselves that don’t serve any purpose?

Step 2: Know Your Alternatives

The prospecting of decluttering your books can be daunting. Let me assure you that when you cut back on the number of books you own, you will still be able to read all the books you want. In fact, you might find yourself more energized than ever to read your newly curated library. Here are some of my favorite tools that have helped me to read just as much as ever while owning fewer paper books.

My Kindle Paperwhite

I was a holdout on the ebook bandwagon, but now that my Kindle is approaching its first birthday, I can’t imagine going back. It’s been a godsend for traveling light. Since I can easily plow through a novel on a single long flight, a weeklong trip used to mean carrying at least two books and probably three. Now, extra reading material doesn’t translate into extra weight or bulk. It’s also great for my much-loved baths, where I can easily hold it and turn pages with only one hand.

I picked the Paperwhite because it was the cheapest Kindle model that came with a backlit screen. That screen means that I can read in the dark without bothering anyone around me or having to fish around for a light, a feature that’s been invaluable in bed and on buses. Plus, this adorable composition book cover makes me happy every time I see it.

The New York Public Library

Despite my frequent trips to the library during my younger years, I fell out of that habit once I moved out of my childhood home. Even after I moved to a city with a robust public library system, it still took me years before I finally started taking advantage of the incredible resources of the New York Public Library. Not only does the library house an extensive collection of books, but we also borrow CDs on a regular basis and even the occasional DVD! Best of all, I can access the NYPL’s ebooks collection digitally. I don’t even have to get out of bed to borrow an ebook and download it right away. This is my favorite way to fill my Kindle with reading material without spending a penny. Wherever you live, it’s worth looking into what’s available from your local public library.

Public Domain Books

We’re lucky to live in a time when many of the world’s classics are available to us instantaneously and free of charge. If you love reading but aren’t familiar with the vast amounts of material in the public domain, you’ll be amazed at how much you can find. My favorite sources for public domain books include Project Gutenberg, The Online Books Page (run by my alma mater!), Bartleby, Open Library, and LibriVox for audiobooks, but there are dozens more out there. Have a look around!


I hate to leave a fictional world behind once I fall in love with it, which may explain why I’m so fond of reading books in series. For those times when I want to linger beyond the end of a book or a series, reading fan fiction allows me to dwell longer in my favorite worlds and with my favorite characters. FicSave is my go-to tool for downloading stories from FanFiction.net to my Kindle. It’s free, open source, and intuitive; doesn’t require installing any software; and can convert stories to ePub, MOBI, or text formats. It’ll even email them directly to your Kindle.

Step 3: The Great Declutter

There are a thousand tips out there for how to declutter your life, from boxing up everything you haven’t touched in a year and seeing six months later if you missed any of it to asking Marie Kondo’s famous question, “Does this spark joy?” For me, I always expect that decluttering any area of my life will take several rounds as I hone my understanding of my own desires and as I progress in my preferences about how much or how little I want to own. In fact, even as I write this, I’m aware that I could easily make another pass at my bookshelves and free myself of some more books that I wasn’t ready to let go of last time. Here are some questions I like to ask as I go through my books:

  1. Do I definitely want to keep this book? Do I definitely NOT want to keep this book? Start with the obvious.
  2. Is this a book that I’ll only ever want to read once? Is it a book I’ll want to read again and again? One-time reads are good candidates for borrowing, whereas repeat reads are better choices for owning. I also have a stack of books that I own but intend to sell or donate once I read them, and I try to think of them as separate from my permanent library.
  3. How accessible is this book outside of my collection? If a book is in my library’s ebook collection, I can let go of it knowing that I can access it again at anytime. If it’s rare, expensive, out of print, not in my library’s collection, or popular enough that it always has a long wait list, then I’m more likely to hold onto it.
  4. Is this a book that only I will read, or will other members of my family also be interested in it? Owning a paper copy makes more sense if it’s shared.
  5. Is there something about this book that would make it difficult to experience digitally? Lawrence owns a giant world atlas that he loves, and it would definitely not be the same on a tablet.
  6. Would I buy this book again right now if I didn’t already own it? As I become more thoughtful about my purchases, I’m finding that, more and more, the answer to this question is no.

Once we had sorted through our entire book collection, we were left with an intimidatingly large pile of discards and no good idea of what to do with them. After some online research, I came across BookScouter, a free service that searches through dozens of online book buyers to see if any of them is willing to pay for your book. You can search by ISBN, but best of all, you can download an app on your phone and use your phone’s camera to search by scanning the books’ barcodes. Through BookScouter, we were able to sort our unwanted books by buyers. We successfully shipped off boxes of books to Powell’s, Sell Back Your Book, Bookbyte, Buyback Express, BookMonster, Textbooks.com, Amazon Marketplace, and TextbookRush, most of which we had never heard of before. All of these buyers covered the costs of shipping them our used books, so all we had to do was box our books up with the provided shipping labels and take them to the post office, UPS, or FedEx. We made almost $500 from our unwanted books and donated the ones that no one wanted to buy to the public library.

Step 4: Going Forward

Have we stopped buying books? Of course not, but for the first time since childhood, I might finally be reading more books than I buy. These days, when I’m interested in a new book, I run through this checklist before I buy a copy:

  1. Is it available for free in the public domain?
  2. Is it available in the library’s ebook collection?
  3. Is it available in the library’s physical book collection?
  4. Is it available for purchase as an ebook? If so, is there a reason that I would prefer it as a physical book?

By exploring all of these alternatives before buying books, I’ve managed to curtail my influx of paper books while having more reading material at my fingertips than ever. And when I do buy a new book, I know that it was a thought-out purchase with a reason behind it: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which I knew that both Lawrence and I would read, and probably my sister too when she visited; or The Case of Beasts, whose three-dimensional props can’t be experienced digitally. And lest you think I just buy every Harry Potter book that comes out, I’ll have you know that I resisted purchasing the screenplay of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I borrowed that one as an ebook from the library.


On Minimalism and Desire

It turns out, in the end, the hardest thing to minimize is desire.

For a couple of years now, I’ve been trying to incorporate minimalist principles into my life. It’s been a slow process, but I’ve done the usual: I said goodbye to clothes I haven’t worn since high school; I donated shelves of books to the library; I held various inanimate objects in my hands and tried very hard to unironically thank them for their service. (Fortunately, personifying inanimate objects is one of my skills.) I visited my parents and recycled bins upon bins of my papers from grade school through college that had been sitting in their basement.

I plan to continue doing these things, and I hope to share some of that process here in the future. But when I first became interested in minimalism, it was all about trying to clear the clutter of objects around me. I felt claustrophobic from the weight of my possessions. It was easy to look around my home and identify areas of excess: things I didn’t like, things I hadn’t used in too many years to count, things I didn’t want, things that took up space, things that didn’t serve me.

It took much longer for me to recognize that filling garbage bags and recycling bins like a champ meant very little unless I was willing to do the much more difficult work of examining my patterns of acquisition.

It’s hard to think of a better example of this than the other hobby I started getting into around the same time my interest in decluttering was growing: writing Amazon reviews in exchange for free or discounted products. There was one month, about a year and a half ago, when I got a package or three in the mail almost every day. It got to the point where the guy who staffs my building’s package room would start gathering my boxes when he saw me approaching from out the window.

At the same time, I was going through my apartment getting rid of the things I felt were excessive. I know. I know. It was a special kind of cognitive dissonance.

But I’m also grateful, because this stark and unavoidable contrast brought some important points to light for me. First of all, and it’s important to acknowledge this, acquisition feels good. Getting a new item in the mail is exciting. Opening a package feels like a holiday. And when that small twinge of pleasure is cheap or free, it can be easy for the question to become, why not? What’s the harm?

The same thing happens when something is on sale. One of the patterns I’ve noticed in myself is the desire to take advantage of good deals. I was brought up in a household where, every Sunday, we religiously read through the stacks of coupons and advertisements that came inserted in the morning paper. To this day, I struggle with holding myself back from making a purchase just because I see a great discount.

For me, one of the biggest rewards of minimalism has been access to this new tool for challenging myself to make better choices. Instead of asking what’s the harm, I want to ask, what’s the benefit? Instead of buying something because it’s on sale, I want to ask myself, is this something I would want regardless?

So, yes, my closet actually contains clothing now instead of storage boxes, and I have this amazing new ability to go on vacation without feeling an irresistible desire to buy souvenirs. Those are certainly pluses. But most of all, I’m grateful that I’m becoming more attentive, more demanding, and a whole lot pickier about the objects I allow to enter my life. I’ve become increasingly conscientious about the quality, longevity, and recently, morality of my purchases. Now I spend time searching for my “holy grail” products in each category, and when I buy something, I try to make sure I’ll want to keep and use it for a long time.

Am I successful 100% of the time? Of course not. I’m in my early thirties, and I recently decided that it was time to learn how to apply makeup, a skill I somehow managed to avoid throughout my teens and twenties. That’s been a process where failed experiments have been hard to avoid. But for the first time in my life, I’m trying to be aware of whether my toiletries have been tested on animals and whether my clothing was sewn in a sweatshop. I’m trying to pause and wait and consider before acting on my still-frequent impulses to buy something new. And I realized that once I found and bought a pencil case and a backpack I loved, my inclination to shop for pencil cases and backpacks melted away.