Charlie Waldo, the main character in Howard Michael Gould’s mystery series, is a man who has learned how to live minimally. After a terrible event in his life, which I won’t reveal in case you decide to read the books, he dedicates himself to leaving a very small footprint on the planet. To this end, he becomes a hermit, living several hours outside Los Angeles in a tiny (and I mean tiny) cabin he has built himself, eating only food that he has grown, eschewing the company of others and, in an act I cannot even imagine, reducing the “Things” in his life to 100.
Having spent the past several weeks reducing my possessions considerably – and not getting even close to 1,000 Things, let alone 100 – I know how hard it is to let go of belongings that bring comfort, aesthetic pleasure and/or convenience, so I was fascinated to read about Charlie’s process.
At the beginning of his downsizing, he spent time deciding what constituted One Thing. His books, for instance, of which he had hundreds, he considered calling A Library, but felt that would be cheating. He gave them all away and replaced them with A Kindle, on which he borrows and purchases books. His socks were A Pair, which made sense until one sock was worn beyond repair. What to do? Throw away only the worn-out sock, leaving him with A Sock and the need to buy A Pair, thus increasing his Things to 101? Throw them both out, which offended his commitment to minimizing waste? Donate the one remaining sock to a used clothing store, which would no doubt just throw it out? In the end, he simply continued to wear both socks, despite the decrepit state of one of them. (At one point, Charlie has to acquire a new Thing and, after deliberating at length about whether he would be better off without A Wallet or A Pair of socks, he opts to go sockless.)
As Charlie is drawn out of his solitary and confined life, he is forced to make many difficult decisions about his 100 Things as well as about other evils most of us just gloss over. Is it better to eat a banana – shipped from thousands of miles away but free of packaging – or a sandwich made from local ingredients that is presented in plastic wrap? How does he manage the permanent transit pass he needs? Does he get rid of one of his 100 Things and, if so, which one, so the pass doesn’t put him over his limit? Does something that is in his possession only briefly (eg. a condom) have to be counted as one of his 100 Things?
Having sworn off the use of fossil fuels for his personal transportation and purchased a collapsible bike to get around his land and for occasional trips to the nearby village, Charlie unexpectedly has to travel some distance. After much deliberation, he decides he can take a bus, since it will be using the same amount of fossil fuel whether or not he is on it. Later, he decides he can extend this analysis to being a passenger in a car that would be driven with or without him. And, in a move that endeared him to me forever, following my friend Joan’s maxim that we need to live with our contradictions, he even decides that he might as well drive that car.
I have no intention of reducing my possessions to 100, but I did find it interesting to ponder what would be highest on my list of Things I wouldn’t want to live without. Obviously, humans don’t count as Things, but what about a pet? I’ve decided that because cats are independent beings who merely suffer their human companions, our cat is not A Thing. (A dog, on the other hand, might well be.) On that basis, I can keep my partner and our cat without eating into whatever total number of possessions I decide I am allowed to have, but that doesn’t really get me very far.
It’s an interesting time for me to think about this, because we have fewer things right now than we have had for decades, and yet I am sure we still have more than we need. When we did our major purge last month, we rented a storage locker to hold Things that we didn’t think we would need but weren’t quite ready to say good-bye to. To provide the rather spartan look that real estate agents seem to think inspires offers, we packaged up other of our possessions and stacked them in the workshop.
Admittedly, it’s only been a few weeks of living with less, but so far, I can’t say I miss anything in particular. It would be handy to have back the clothes tree that used to sit behind our bedroom door and served as an excellent end-of-day receptacle for clothing that we didn’t feel like putting away immediately. And the loss of the extra chair in my office means my partner and I can’t sit and chat during the day unless one of us stands up. The potato ricer – saved by my partner from disappearing at our yard sale – sits, still pristine from non-use, in the utensil drawer in the kitchen.
Having worked very hard to decrease our possessions – perhaps by as much as 25% — on the path to selling our house and moving into a much smaller apartment, we have hit a serious roadblock. No one wants to buy our house. As a result, we’ve given up the apartment we had hoped to take occupancy of in a few days.
I want to stay true to my commitment to own fewer Things. I do, I really do. But, maybe, I could just bring in that chair for my office. And, while I am at it, what would the harm be of unpacking my bowl of glass fish? And the small table it used to sit on? Can I ask my daughter to return the patio heater we were only too happy to give her when we thought our days of outdoor entertaining were over? Can I buy some Things for the empty surfaces we created to make our real estate agent happy?
Charlie would not be impressed.