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Why Own Few Things?

When I first moved to California in 2011 I sold almost everything I owned down to the point of fitting my life in a Honda Civic. I noticed that my identity “shifted” a bit every time I sold something. My brain had thought for so long “this is my bed and this is my table.” Once the bed and the table were gone I really liked that new feeling and the new discovery: “this is me, the same me, without a bed and without a table.”

When I left California in 2014 to travel to Asia I again sold everything — this time much more aggressively — and kept just a small backpack and a few boxes of clothes at my mom’s house. I travelled for a year and a half with comparatively few things.

Once I got back to San Francisco my mom mailed me a huge box of clothes from Virginia — a time capsule I sent myself from a year and a half ago. The first night after the box arrived I went to a party with my roommates and changed outfits three times before my roommate Joe laughed at me and asked me how I liked this new life of having options. I hated it. I didn’t like any of the clothes, I didn’t like having so many options, and I was uncomfortable putting my old skin back on. I wore my usual travel outfit to the party with the sole addition of a new pair of pants.

There have been more additions since then: coffee brewing equipment, a film camera, a macro lens, books, a hair trimmer, a camping hammock, a yoga mat, a cushion to sit on the floor, and an old Ikea chair and coffee table found near the dumpster. Right now that’s close to my upper limit of what I want to keep around.

What selling everything down twice has taught me is that not only do I not need so many things, but that the things consumer society makes me want to buy are often very wasteful. Functional clothes are important, but stylish clothes make me spend a lot of time thinking about how to get dressed. The most enticing things to buy, which for me are often slick electronics, push me toward compulsive behaviors that scatter my mind. Furniture isn’t unhealthy, in fact it’s often very practical, but for me it makes spaces feel constrained.

As far as money: It would be easy in San Francisco to spend $5 on a coffee, $20 on lunch, $40 on a shirt, or $2,500 on rent. I’ve found good enough alternatives in making my own coffee, a $5-10 lunch, wearing the shirts I already have, and subletting a room in a friend’s apartment. The space between “good enough” and “perfect” can be reserved for the few things that I care deeply about.

Photo is a film panorama of an old man fishing. Taken at Fort Mason center in San Francisco.