How to minimalise your life and accidentally forget who you are.
In the back cover of a magazine I like there’s a section that showcases people’s different workspaces, and recently I was asked if I’d be willing to have my workspace photographed for it. While I was certainly interested, I had to explain that I didn’t really have a workspace (not a permanent one anyway) and that my place of work varies depending on where I am at any given time; sometimes a cafe, other times a bar, or a library, or occasionally a friend’s kitchen table.
“Not a problem” the magazine had assured me, they could shoot whatever space I happened to be in at the time, and so a few days later I found myself working at a cafe in Brixton while a photographer stood over me snapping away at the controlled chaos I optimistically refer to as ‘my work’.
Since that shoot I’ve returned to Australia, and so was asked what my address was so that they could send me a copy of the magazine once it published. It was at that point, while I failed to come up with a permanent address, that I realised that not only was my workspaces transient and ephemeral, but also my living arrangements, and to that extent, my entire life as well.
A bag of clothes, a phone and a laptop: These are really my only permanent possessions. This minimalist existence is not something I ever set out to achieve, and I want to point out that this piece isn’t some kind of personal minimalist white-paper, but rather an explanation of how you end up becoming a transient comedy merchant in the midst of an existential crisis.
In the quest for achieving an accidental minimal existence, moving overseas isn’t so much a requirement as it is a fast-tracking procedure. In early 2015 I was happily renting in Melbourne with some friends, I had a job, and I had things! I had a bed, a desk, a nice table I’d been holding on to (with the view of eventually finding a house big enough for it). I also had an entire bookcase of books, and a bunch more in boxes, also awaiting this hypothetical ‘bigger house’.
Then, approaching the age of 31 I decided I’d move to London, (and yes, that age being the cut-off for obtaining a ‘youth mobility visa’ was no coincidence) I made this decision with a month to spare, and so had to downsize, and fast.
My lovely big desktop computer was first to go, being replaced by a laptop. After that, the desk it had sat on was quickly snapped up as well. Next were the books, which I packed into boxes. From there I threw out about half my wardrobe, continuously reminding myself of Sunk Cost Fallacy as I threw out all my favourite rarely-if-ever-worn clothes.
Eventually I got it down to two or three bags, and I was off to the airport, where I paid heavily for the extra baggage.
I can’t actually remember what happened to my bed. I can also no longer remember what any of the books were, let alone where they currently are (more on that later).
Be a jungle plane crash survivor.
As I’m writing this I’m realising there aren’t any defined stages to this downsizing, and it’s more a case of just continually moving and slowly whittling away at your possessions. At a certain point there’s a kind of survival mode mentality here. Like a jungle plane-crash survivor attempting to hike to civilization and running low on rations, you begin dumping any unnecessary weight in order to maintain efficiency, to keep moving, to survive.
My wardrobe started changing too. It had always been dark, but it eventually reduced itself to a simple uniform of black jeans and a black t-shirt. I ultimately owned two of the former, and a week’s worth of the latter.
Over that year and a half in London I’d always been aware that I’d eventually be on the move again, and so had made a point of avoiding the accumulation of more possessions, so by the time it came time to move again I simply gave my books to friends, packed my simple black uniform into single bag, and kept going.
A quick note on books.
Get rid of them. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. Just get rid of them, it’s okay! You are not your books. And, I know what you’re thinking right now, but consider this: In the unlikely scenario that your hypothetical future library does eventuate, it will never be worth the pain of lugging all those books around with you for the preceding three or four decades.
You are not your surroundings.
New York was next, and it was here that I stopped needing a place to live. Sure, I was subletting while I was there, and so had ‘a place to live’ but only in the most brutally literal interpretation of the term. Meanwhile the broader idea of living; of having a home, or a sanctuary with all your things stored in it, was out of reach in my circumstance and gradually became less important.
Because subletting resulted in me sleeping in other people’s sanctuaries, which has the effect of isolating yourself from the spaces that supposedly define you. In the same way you’re not your books, or your clothes, you’re also not your surroundings.
This has a strange effect, and while you desperately try and latch onto a defined sense of self, or at least something tangible that might represent it, there’s a giddy feeling of freedom to be found when you realise that you can pack up your things and leave on a moments notice.
Which was ultimately what I had to do. New York is famously hard to live in, but when you don’t actually have a fixed address, or much of an income, or a long term visa, it’s near impossible and there was little option but to move on and so I eventually ended up back in Melbourne. My transition from ‘guy with a job who has things’ to ‘transient freelancing comedy merchant’ now finally complete.
Actually, you are not You.
If your books don’t define you, or your surroundings, or your clothes, then what does? You are almost certainly you, but what is it that actually makes you, You? It was this thought that loomed large in my mind on my return while attempting to unlock an old bank account.
I needed to provide proof of address, yet had no address. So, with no address I needed to provide the required amount of identification. My passport alone wasn’t enough, and with no drivers license I was now struggling to prove that I was actually me, or that I even existed. Despite the fact I was standing in front someone telling them all of this, that wasn’t enough.
It’s a strange feeling to consider you’re not even defined by the flesh and blood that you’ve been inhabiting this entire time. To walk down the street and wonder if it was even you that left in the first place, that maybe whatever it was that defined you had been left behind or given away as books, or clothes or an old desk, and whatever remained wasn’t anything at all, nothing more than an echo of a person that no longer existed.
In the end, months later, I eventually got hold of the magazine in a shop and flicking to the back page found my beautifully photographed messy desk from another time and half a world away. And there, sitting at this desk in the photograph is someone who certainly looks like me, and most reassuring of all, written next that person is my name.
As for the magazine itself, I think I’m probably going to hold on to it.