Living out of a backpack for a year really does change you. It changed me: I'm a born-again minimalist.
During my year-plus churn through South America and Europe, I lived out of a small black backpack. I loved having so few possessions, just a few outfits, a tiny netbook, a camera, a nightgown, and reading materials on my iPhone.
Now that I'm back in the States, I'm on a continual stuff diet. I want only books that feel current, shampoo that doesn't make my hair frizzy, clothes I wear and love, towels that feel good. Losing stuff is like losing weight. It's a long-term process.
My purge began almost two years ago when I decided to go on a walkabout for four months in Brazil. Four months turned into more than a year of traveling and hanging out getting to know people and places in Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina. That's a longer story that I am writing in memoir form.
Before I leapt into travel mode, I had been living in a San Francisco apartment for four years with two roommates. Four years equals a lot of stuff!
Moving always caused me to sink into temporary holes of depression. The process always seemed more emotional than seemed warranted. I was forced to stare at things I acquired in the heat of the moment and then see them with fresh eyes. What is this junk and why do I have to pack it up with me? This cheap costume wig that is so mangled I can't even comb it, this unflattering schwag t-shirt? I could think of one thing with value: a juicer that could easily juice a beet. If my stuff was a reflection of life, my life seemed to be filled with junk.
Thus began the purge that continues to this day.
I began in Brazil with a bloated bag of dresses and skirts and quickly realized the weight was too much. I spent $80 to send clothes back. (Advice for anyone embarking on long-term travel: Don't worry about clothing. Shoes are a different story, but you will get the appropriate clothing anywhere you go and understand better what you actually need.)
Now that I'm back in the States—and considering future adventures abroad—I want to remain buoyant and light. I think wistfully back to the days when there was so little laundry to do. I bundled up the bag more frequently but it wasn't so laborious and heavy.
My stuff was stored in a storage unit for over a year. Like most people, I had no desire to deal with it. If I had survived without those boxes for 16 months, what did I need them for? But I was paying a ghastly monthly fee. I didn't want to be one of those Americans who pays to store junk in storage for the rest of my life. The storage industry now exceeds the revenues of Hollywood.
Since those cardboard boxes came back into my life, I've been purging. It's funny how I still feel a sense of loss when I pick up the pair of tango heels that are unstable—no matter how many times I brought them to a cobbler—and then put them on a bag on the street. It's a loss, and then a joy—I'm free of that problem now!
I get a buzz out of giving away CDs, books and dishes. I work on wearing every piece of clothing in my wardrobe, and if I don't wear it within three months, it goes out on the street to someone who will love it more. I hope these objects will be received with joy by someone else.
Ever since I came back from my travels, shopping is no longer therapy. I no longer acquire clothes as a hobby. That's pretty amazing since I spent 30 percent of my free time in junior high school and high school in malls! I take this as a sign that I have more fulfillment in my life—I don't need to seek fulfillment in shopping because there are other things I want to spend money on, like travel and tango. Over the last six months, I spent $100 on new clothes for practicing or dancing tango.
Here's a fascinating statistic that makes this accomplishment feel bigger: "By 2005, according to the Boston College sociologist Juliet B. Schor, the average [American] consumer purchased one new piece of clothing every five and a half days."
Steadily getting rid of possessions brings me a lightness and joy that's hard to name. It's easier to create order when I am surrounded by fewer objects to organize. A simple home reflects a calm mind.
My desire for simplicity doesn't stop with possessions. I also want less in my information diet. I want to be informed. I do not want the debt ceiling limit to result in seniors not being able to get health care, for example. But there are limits to how much information I can take in. I was a perpetual NPR listener in my previous life, and now I am more likely to intersperse silence and music on college radio. The news can be a barrage, and my brain can't hold on to all the threads. The voices become noise after a while and noise is clutter.
I lived without an iPhone while I was in South America and it was a joy to be free of the distraction.
My goal is to be simple in all ways. How can we be sustainably simple in this "crazy" world in the United States? I am always struck how people call their days "crazy" in the U.S., and I don't want "crazy" days whether I am living here or abroad. I want simple, love-fueled days. I want to keep the light, well-edited minimalism of travel with me now always.
Follow Sasha Cagen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sashacagen