31 Days of Black Minimalism: Week 2

IMG_3280.JPG

or, This sticky spot used to say...

I am not a person who dislikes labels. I label my body, my practice, my time, my mental picture of myself. I value them, I appreciate the power that defining myself for myself (allegedly) brings. And I an acknowledge the smallness of this, the fact that labeling myself just connects me to a way of being that is shallow, or will ultimately pass away. There are some labels I'm comfortable with--vegan, writer, teacher--some I love using personally but don't love the external perception of--wife jumps rather lightly to mind on that list--and there are some labels I dislike entirely.

How do we decide our identity? Do we call ourselves something--black, feminist, evolved, creative, progressive--because we behave that way, or because we simply be that way? Is the definition of our identity, is the label, located in the being, or the doing? My husband (there's another label) insists he is unable to consider himself a feminist because he is a man. The privilege of hid body in our current world cannot be overcome (if such a thing is what we do with privilege overcome it, like an obstacle, instead of use it, like a tool, for the good of others, of all) by the feminist ideals that he has, by how he comports himself in relationships, by which causes he supports and the company he keeps. But I would call him a feminist, based what I know of how he thinks and behave. Because he was born into a male body he asserts he can never be feminist, but he sure can do feminist. So which is it? 

I did not like that the minimalism narrative was a story told by the dominant culture. And to be fair, I think it's not. All it took me was a little effort and a little research and I discovered, if not a narrative that matched my own, at least a present experience that felt similar.

If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.
— Audre Lorde

Without shame, I say that a large part of what has helped me into this practice is that Marie Kondo book that the zeitgeist read like, four years ago when it actually came out, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. When that book first dropped, I picked it up in a bookstore all kinds of skeptical. I turned to a page that was discussing, horror of all horrors for a writer, culling your personal library. I read a sentence like, "Let's face it. In the end, you are going to read very few of your books again," and I'm pretty sure I snorted and remarked out loud. A few sentences later, I read, "Keep only those books that will make you happy just to see them on your shelves... that includes this book too. If you don't feel any joy when you hold it in your hand, I would rather you discard it." And I thought, you got it, babe, and closed it and put it back in the stack. Somehow, years later, when I felt called to start letting go of things, I knew that a self-guided spring cleaning wouldn't get the job done, and so I picked it up again, interested to see what kind of resource it might offer. So far, it's been very useful, and I'm not afraid to take it with a grain of salt. 

I want to reclaim the word "minimalism", for myself. I don't like it. I can recall my mother or father occasionally using it to describe some outfit or meal or something that I'd constructed with amusement and a little disdain. When I realized what I was after was deeper than just a spring clean, I started researching minimalism and found a lot of content, written by and featuring white people (frequently men) of wealth and education, who decided they were going to stop throwing money out the window on fancy cars and bottle service and grown-up playground experience, and invest in something real. I tried to watch a Netflix documentary about it, and got about fifteen minutes in before I shut it off.

There is a quality of the way minimalism is narrated and documented that feels trendy, self-righteous, graphic (not like, gratuitous, more like-highly designed in nature). You could play minimalism bingo: capsule wardrobe; in-home/backyard compost bin; wooden, handmade toys for the kiddies; at least one wall in every room unadorned and white, BINGO! While I think this is effective marketing, whatever your platform, I want my expression to come from a more authentic place. Even though I'm documenting this practice, I want it to be grounded. If it is grounded, I know it will endure.

People talk about the lightness and the beauty that is a part of this practice-- Oh, how nice it is to be free of so many things, A man who owns little is little owned, now I can travel all over the world, I fit all  my worldly possessions into these two bags--but what I haven't heard much of is The Struggle. I expected this to be a process of letting go of objects, and it's been that, but it's also been one of letting go of ideals: letting go of labels: letting go of relationships: letting go of illusions about myself. The peeling back and stripping away that is happening inside me feels more sever by an order of magnitude than the letting go of objects. Maybe I haven't heard a lot about this because it's an unusual experience. Or maybe the idea that the things that we've gathered around ourselves are a kind of insulation from feeling what we don't want to feel, and so everyone goes through this but few of us want to talk about it. Because who wants to talk about what they're insulating themselves from: from the scratching, sucking, desiccating specter of poverty; insulation to bolster a false sense of self; insulation to hide from reality (and here we can put all kinds of stuff in our environment to avoid dealing with What Is, from Fox News to the Karsashians (or whatever reality TV y'all are watching) to a never-ending stream of stories and teachings that take us further and further from reality); insulation from the community, with whom we are unwilling to be vulnerable or accountable: we want to feel far from it all, or in control of it all, and so we surround ourselves with stuff.

But not isolating yourself from reality is hard--or rather, willingly choosing to engage with the reality of what is in a way that lives out your integrity. This is hard.

I talk to folks who say, nothing is clean, everything causes cancer, it's impossible to make choices that don't hurt anyone, so why bother, and just chuck in the towel. And I suppose that's a way to go. But values are values. I can choose to value complacency (which sometimes masquerades as ease) and ignorance (which innocently shrugs its shoulders about what's happened) and avoidance (which folks, especially yogi folks, like to pretend is the higher plane they're reaching for, the samadhi which eclipses the suffering others may experience as a result of their willful spiritual practice).

Or I can choose to value integrity, which is inconvenient, and sometimes exhausting, and even painful; and self-study, which if you're really, really willing to do the work, will tell you everything you need to know about everyone all the time; and transformation, which is always impossible to predict, and requires radical, unceasing surrender, and will forever surprise you.

I try to let go of objects ethically, try to release in a way that is responsible, that considers that every object I own doesn't ever really go away, it only transforms, and just because a thing isn't in my hand or room or home doesn't mean it magically dematerializes. It's tough, being confronted with all of the waste I've cultivated, and all of the harm embedded in it. So much of my shopping and purchasing ethic has been informed by the poverty mentality I inherited. (This is a phrase I feel like I hear a lot in the context of this conversation, which, yeah, I feel like is a real, legit thing, but also, I kind of want to roll my eyes at it.) When I pick up a sweater, a volume of poetry a pair of heeled boots, a CD, a tube of mascara, a measuring cup or pair of chopsticks or tube acrylic paint, and discover that none of them bring me joy, a voice inside fights me: but you might need that! What are you going to wear and what will people think? It doesn't matter if you haven't worn/read/used it and never will, it's still perfectly good, you can't part with it.

And I realize that so much of the things I've been keeping aren't really things I cherish, or even like. They're just things I think I have to have in order to live some version of a life that I thought I wanted but don't, or a life that isn't mine, or isn't the life I want it to be. I don't want to be so over-saturated I can't see; I don't want to be so overstuffed I can't feel; I don't want to pretend some label I've assigned myself means I have to express a certain way, walk, talk, dress, adorn or relate a certain way. I want to be free: free to choose the earth beneath my feet and ground into it more powerfully. Free to stay mobile, free to grow too big for confinement of the fear of not having enough; free to choose to ignore the bitter taste of competition for resources; free to release what things (or people or practices) I think are healthy because I've grown accustomed to what is toxic.

I said to a friend recently that I want to be free, and she asked, are you ready to be free? And I was dumbstruck. But after thinking about it, I told her, absolutely, Full-Body-Fuck-Yes, am I ready. There is always a breathless shock, and sometimes a lingering pain, with the newness of growth. But we choose to keep growing. A teacher reminded me that the spiritual practice of liberation means Letting Go in a Major Way, and that it hurts. It's deep working--all the things I'm attached to, all of them are up for grabs, and all if it's being called into question.