I recently — and quite manically — cleaned the house I live in with four other girls. We’ve come into a living pattern where we live comfortably for a week or two before realizing the Cheetos Paws bags and empty bottles of alcohol are not going to disappear. Cleaning, for me, has always been a way to organize the equally messy space of my thoughts as well as the physical house itself, making it a win-win situation.
I had to get rid of three plants in the house — all of them mine. As I picked them up, I watched as the dried leaves fell onto the table. They were lifeless and curled up. One of them I had found at the Union Square farmers’ market in the city when I was staying there for the summer. Another came from one of my mom’s plants. Another was in a pot that had come from flowers my friends got me when they found out that the guy I was seeing was still with his ex-girlfriend. You can see why these plants were not just plants.
That’s why seeing them die like that, under my neglect, made me feel so irresponsible. Sure, I had gathered them with intention every time — whether drawn to the beauty or the memory attached. But I saw that the more plants I took in, the less effort I made to take care of them. It was a shit, that soil looks dry, or I have extra water I don’t want to waste, might as well use it to water those ones. It didn’t fit into Marie Kondo’s, “Does it spark joy?” because of course they did, except now they were dead. What was the purpose of collecting more plants if I couldn’t even keep them alive?
What is more? A show from the podcast, “Invest Like the Best,” with Boyd and Bronwyn Varty talks about the idea of “more.” Perhaps, they say, more is giving more time to yourself so that you can give fewer people your full present energy and attention. Giving is the marker of what an ideal good person does, so there are times when people give too much and then feel overrun. More, simply, is not always better. Translated to my situation with plants, buying fewer plants would allow me to put more time and effort into caring for them.
I struggle. I go through massive purges where I donate heaps of clothing, feeling weighed down by material things. But I’m also the type to collect little mementos everywhere I go, as a way to try to collect moments. There’s a small eraser of The Thinker I have sitting by my mirror, from the Rodin Museum in Paris. A blue chameleon toy I got from a vending machine in the Salvation Army is perched on my bookcase. There’s a golden compass my boyfriend got me in London because he knows I’m bad at directions.
Memories are the things I place the most value in, but these other physical objects bring me back to a place or moment just by looking at them. I like to feel the smooth surface of the compass, to feel the weight of it settle in the palm of my hand.
I watched a documentary on Netflix called “Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things.” Overall, I felt like privileged white men were preaching to me how to live, even while they experienced financial security and a discomfort with not feeling fulfilled by that. The section on tiny houses interested me (just because the concept of tiny houses interests me in general), and there were some valuable lifestyle tips to take away. I felt the documentary catered to a demographic of those who have reached a comfortable lifestyle to the extent that they can now afford the luxury of picking what “meaningful” items they want to keep. Close-up shots of Mrs. Meyer’s hand soap, carefully selected high-end brand clothing and a copy of The New Yorker further the notion of a curated aesthetic people who call themselves “minimalists” adhere to.
With the postcards and letters covering my wall and books I’ve convinced myself to keep, my space is far from minimalist. But that doesn’t mean I can’t acknowledge how the more I accumulate, the less value I place in each object. I don’t think there’s an inherent badness in stuff. But just as cleaning takes care of both the house and my mind, bringing awareness to the items I accumulate can allow the meaning and value I place on them to actually hold weight once again.
Gabrielle Leung is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Serendipitous Musings appears every other Friday this semester.