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Just don’t call me a tramp. It confuses my mother.

The day I bought that car, I knew what I was going to do with it: I was going to fit my entire life into it, and I was going to drive it a very long way, all by myself.

Right after I let my mom talk me into a variety of cheesy poses, of course. First things first.

I called it Operation Hobo: a quest to pare down my possessions to a scant 75 cubic feet of cargo, give or take the passenger seat.

I spent a year on it. I didn’t just downsize; I peeled myself like an onion, shedding previously unarticulated misconceptions about how much I needed to own to be happy. I said good-bye over and over again. I gave away the paintings on my walls, any fixture I could pry away, even the bed beneath me.

I even got a smaller toothbrush holder. Yes, really:

I threw out cards, notes, letters, and two entire garbage bags full of photographs (relax—I scanned my favorites). I did keep one card, from Kerri Anne, delivered to me at a very dark time, when my life was in a stomach-churning state of collapse:

The above is now the only framed image I own, but I hope you will agree that I chose wisely.

The joy of Operation Hobo caught me off-guard, I think. The most ordinary tea mug has a precious heft in your hands when you’ve chosen it so deliberately, when you’ve eyed a cluttered box of them on the floor of your kitchen, picked it up, and thought, this.

If you’re willing to forsake all else, you can build such refreshingly, sweetly nascent memories around what little remains. You can reconnect with what it feels like to have potential, to own more possibility than anything else, rather than accidentally transitioning into a routine of maintenance as the curator of your own maxed-out life.

I don’t mean to be condescending about people who own shelves of china and candles and … I don’t know, those decorative balls of glass that look like Christmas ornaments but are not Christmas ornaments. I don’t mean to sound as if someone’s life is pointless and suburban because they enjoy a good tealight holder and a nicely painted fruit bowl. It’s not like reducing my T-shirt count to four (yes, four) resulted in an automatic cure for cancer or anything.

All I can tell you is that I, personally, as an individual, was deeply unsatisfied with the way things were. I spent far too much of my time dusting my crap, arranging my crap, painting my crap, finding more crap I needed to go with my other crap, and suffering under the illusion that I would feel fulfilled and satisfied and happy just as soon as my life looked like something out of a Pottery Barn catalog and I were wearing the right pair of ballet flats and the most whimsical brooch.

If you have had a different experience, I will not only salute you, but I may also ask to borrow your flour sifter sometime.

I wanted everything to feel simpler. But, while a lot of wonderful discoveries came about as a result of Operation Hobo, I’m not sure simplicity was one of them.

The less you own, the harder it is to hide from everything still wrong with you. All of the dreams you have yet to realize, even now that your childhood is startlingly far behind you, are suddenly so much more starkly visible once you can’t distract yourself by petting fabric swatches or rearranging your bookshelves.

We’re always saying life is short, but honestly, if you stop staring at paint chips and shopping for throw pillows and arranging vases, if you have so little clothing (let alone accessories like scarves, necklaces, or earrings, of which I own none) that choosing an outfit is hardly an artistic endeavor, you would be surprised at how much time you have and how absolutely terrifying it can feel to have nowhere to put that energy.

You become almost the only particularly notable thing you have, and experimenting with rearranging a bookshelf into a rainbow pattern, it turns out, is far easier than experimenting with rearranging oneself. Where does one even begin?

I’m still figuring out what to do with myself now that my life has less to do with material things, and the alien, paradigm-shifting brain-meltingness of that task says a lot about our culture. It’s hard, but I’m still working on it, because I sincerely doubt that on their deathbeds, many people’s last words are, “I should have bought more stuff with sparrows on it. Oh, and that rug in the CB2 catalo—glaaaargh!”

The day I did it, the day I could finally fit everything I owned into my car, I climbed behind the wheel and laughed hysterically for about five minutes. It was hilarious and surreal and immensely satisfying to be able to carry all of myself everywhere, all at once, to steer it left and right and point it wherever I wanted it to go, and to have rid myself of more fear than I had ever known a person could keep within four walls.

And then, yes, I did drive it a very long way, all by myself.

55 Comments

  1. jim wrote:

    My favorite line: “The less you own, the harder it is to hide from everything still wrong with you.” I had a similar de-stuffing experience in my life, though in my case not by choice, and boy howdy did I ever find this to be true.

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 4:21 am | Permalink
  2. Kristin wrote:

    Not to sound creepy, but I’ve missed your writing and look forward to hearing more about your new life! Glad I kept you in my feeder all these months… :)

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink
  3. Titanium wrote:

    This line:

    “You become almost the only particularly notable thing you own, and experimenting with rearranging a bookshelf into a rainbow pattern, it turns out, is far easier than experimenting with rearranging oneself. Where does one even begin?”

    Totally roundhouse-kicks every last ounce of materialistic foolishness hidden in the corners of my brain-envelope.

    This post of yours? Totally worth the wait. You’ve been missed.

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 8:56 am | Permalink
  4. Jen wrote:

    Jim, you still have the expression “boy howdy” to your name, and I am not being sarcastic when I tell you that is worth a lot.

    Not creepy at all, Kristin. Thank you!

    Titanium, I’m totally adding “Can roundhouse-kick every last ounce of materialistic foolishness hidden in the corners of your brain-envelope” to my resume.

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink
  5. Kerri Anne wrote:

    I feel so proud that that card is the only framed thing you currently own. (I also will forever love that card, not only because I instantly knew it belonged to you when I saw it, but because the woman on the front reminds me so much of my (very bad ass) grandmother, it’s not even funny. You would love her.)

    Also, this! THIS is where I’m happily heading:

    “We’re always saying life is short, but honestly, if you stop staring at paint chips and shopping for throw pillows and arranging vases, if you have so little clothing (let alone accessories like scarves, necklaces, or earrings, of which I own none) that choosing an outfit is hardly an artistic endeavor, you would be surprised at how much time you have and how absolutely terrifying it can feel to have nowhere to put that energy.”

    So proud of you, friend. (And I know that is and never was the point. But I still am. So proud of you, and so proud to know you.)

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink
  6. jessica wrote:

    I don’t know why I always find myself so amused at how similar we are, all while being polar opposites in a multitude of areas. We are currently working very hard to sell our online business, sell our home, and move to a teeny, tiny farm house. I’ve always been minimalist (especially when it comes to clothes and accessories, as I simply don’t know *how*), but I’m so excited to purge 80% of the crap we own if we can make this happen.

    I absolutely loved this too:

    We’re always saying life is short, but honestly, if you stop staring at paint chips and shopping for throw pillows and arranging vases, if you have so little clothing (let alone accessories like scarves, necklaces, or earrings, of which I own none) that choosing an outfit is hardly an artistic endeavor, you would be surprised at how much time you have and how absolutely terrifying it can feel to have nowhere to put that energy.

    Terrifying. But I’m looking forward to it.

    You have indeed been missed! xoxox

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink
  7. Issa wrote:

    I was so excited to see you in my reader just now.

    I’m intrigued by what you will do next. Hopefully you figure it out. Until then? Have an absolute blast.

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 11:21 am | Permalink
  8. Sarah Brown wrote:

    Everything I want to say would be most appropriate coming out of some mustachioed, top hatted man in a vest, like HEAR HEAR!

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  9. Avitable wrote:

    I got a chill reading this.

    I’m looking at the possibility of packing everything up in the next year or two to move to a tiny apartment in LA or NYC so I can pursue a full-time career in comedy. I don’t know how I can fit my entire life into something that small. It’s terrifying to me.

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Permalink
  10. Kate wrote:

    AHHHHH this is such a great post and it makes me so happy. Also: “I should have bought more stuff with sparrows on it. Oh, and that rug in the CB2 catalo—glaaaargh!”” made me laugh until I cried.

    I got divorced two years ago and you write about it really, really well. Thank you for doing that.

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink
  11. Angela wrote:

    I love this so much. SO MUCH. You’re brave and articulate, and that’s such an admirable combination.

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink
  12. Helen Jane wrote:

    What Sarah Brown said.

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink
  13. HouseofJules wrote:

    This is why I’m in a 1-br apartment. Buying a house just to hold more crap doesn’t interest me in the least. High five! Loved this post.

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Permalink
  14. Sir wrote:

    This is so ridiculously amazing that I want to punch myself for this being the first thing of yours that I’ve ever read.

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Permalink
  15. sarah wrote:

    Bravo!

    Also, to Avitable, if this interests you, start small and go slowly. It’s like loosing weight. A giant purge is unsustainable.

    For example, the tv show Hoarders strips people of decades of stuff in a week or less and it’s terrifying. They hoard to protect themselves emotionally.

    Note that Jen took a YEAR to do this and that she also went pretty extreme. Start reading http://www.unclutterer.com for tips on how to do this slowly.

    Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Permalink
  16. Brook wrote:

    This made me cry. At work. I went through a very similar experience after my divorce. Almost ten years later, I’ve somehow managed to let all the crap creep back. I am choking on it!

    I’m inspired. Thank you and best of luck to you.

    Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at 6:57 am | Permalink
  17. dusty rose wrote:

    I recently shaved my comfortable three-bedroom-and-a-job life down to a suitcase, stuffed it into a sedan with three other friends and traveled as performers for a 9 months. What you have done takes so much more courage than diving into the unknown – it is ways in which you have to continue to let go, be strong, breathe deep *every* day. Thank you for the sense of solidarity – I so rarely feel anyone understands.

    Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink
  18. Jen wrote:

    And what Sarah said to Avitable is right on: SLOW. GO SLOW. I can’t imagine how grief-stricken I would have been to lose everything all at once. I’m sure I would have panicked and then dropped like $3,000 at Target in a desperate attempt to get my life back.

    And Brook, don’t feel bad–I see another post sometime in my future about “crap creep,” which has already happened to some extent now that I’m settling in here.

    Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at 10:59 am | Permalink
  19. Micaela wrote:

    Yay! You are back! Nice post!

    Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink
  20. schmutzie wrote:

    I’m just dropping in to let you know that this weblog is being featured on Five Star Friday – http://www.schmutzie.com/fivestarfriday/2011/4/29/five-star-fridays-147th-edition-is-brought-to-you-by-george.html

    Thursday, April 28, 2011 at 11:36 pm | Permalink
  21. Love this post; glad to see you writing again.

    Friday, April 29, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Permalink
  22. Angella wrote:

    So inspiring, lady.

    *slow clap*

    Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 9:31 pm | Permalink
  23. Miranda wrote:

    I have been trying to minimize my life for quite some time. I think this might have just been the kick in the ass I needed.

    Wednesday, May 4, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink
  24. Mrs. Flinger wrote:

    I did this. I put everything in my tercel and drove from Houston to Portland, OR.

    I forgot the absolute joy of that feeling. As I glance around my house, the kids, the dog, the stuff, I needed to hear this. I did this. Once. A very long time ago.

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for bringing that feeling back.

    Wednesday, May 4, 2011 at 8:57 pm | Permalink
  25. Jen wrote:

    I’m getting a lot of e-mail from people who wanted to comment here–sorry about that. My blog automatically shuts down comments after 14 days to avoid spam, it turns out. Anyway, I had several e-mails this morning, so I lit a match and swung open my bloggy fuse box and squinted and flipped a switch, and here we are again! Discuss away! I mean … if you still want to. Slammed-shut barn door, meet already-escaped horse.

    Friday, May 20, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink
  26. Janet wrote:

    One of the best posts I’ve read. Absolutely inspiring.

    Friday, May 20, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink
  27. April wrote:

    Always inspired by people who want to live more simply!!! good for you! I’ll add you to my feed reader.
    We live in a tiny house (less than 250 sq ft) and it is a challenge not to get “crap creep” but with a small space we’re, technically, more limited to what we can have so that makes it, emotionally, easier I think.

    Friday, May 20, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink
  28. April wrote:

    Also: I LOVE that card with the old lady badass!!

    Friday, May 20, 2011 at 11:51 am | Permalink
  29. Kristen wrote:

    Love this. I live in a 1-br apartment (like House of Jules) but have felt like I have too much stuff. It’s a tough process, I feel, to get rid of the excess, but I feel as though I’m getting much better at it.

    I must know – where can I find that toothbrush holder?!

    Friday, May 20, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink
  30. Amy wrote:

    I just found you this morning, and already, I love you. In an unhealthy, want-to-spend-all-day-reading-your-blog kind of way. I feel so called out and inspired in the same moment. I can’t wait to keep reading (after I get my shit done, that is).

    Friday, May 20, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Permalink
  31. Jen wrote:

    Kristen, that is officially known as the Smiley Toothbrush Holder, and while I got it at Magellan’s (Operation Hobo involved a lot of travel-supply shopping, as products tend to be more compact, harder to wrinkle, etc.), it doesn’t look like they still have it. It’s still at Amazon, however: http://amzn.to/juYEjF

    For the latest updates on where to buy, you can always consult Smileytoothbrushholder.com. Yes, really.

    Friday, May 20, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink
  32. kate wrote:

    You are adorable and wonderful and funny and spot-on. If you are single I think you would be perfect for my ex-husband. No. Really.

    Friday, May 20, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink
  33. Jen wrote:

    Kate, I don’t find that a weird comment at all, as someone who routinely thinks fondly of my ex-husband while hoping that he finds a nice girl to settle down with, as if I am his grandmother.

    While I am not currently single, I will be sure to add your ex-husband to my special mental Rolodex that I like to call the Man Stable. Unless you are my boyfriend or you think that objectifying men in such a manner is repugnant, in which case I was totally kidding just now.

    Friday, May 20, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink
  34. Love this. We’re got rid of half our stuff last fall. Felt great. Now we’re getting down to a dozen packing boxes to move overseas – no small feat for two adults and a toddler.

    Friday, May 20, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Permalink
  35. Franca Bolla wrote:

    Thank you! This is so inspiring. I’m printing it out and posting next to another motivational tip I picked up from another blogger:

    http://tinyurl.com/3nqrh42

    Friday, May 20, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink
  36. Jen wrote:

    This is fantastic. I’m so impressed at the pared down prose you’ve used to express such a big change, and how beautifully it worked. There’s a phrase I remember hearing (almost always in relation to F Scott Fitzgerald’s writing) about there being not a word was out of place, nothing extra, nothing wasted. That’s how this post felt to me. Well done, in so many ways. Thanks so much.

    Friday, May 20, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Permalink
  37. kazzles wrote:

    I too have massively downsized, but I got it down to 20kgs for flying! You do get a lot more time, though I seem to be filling that with travelling and exploring at the moment. I admit though it’s nice not to have to do a whole lot of chores on your time off. Mind you I have a ton of stuff in storage in NZ that is starting to nag at me, given that I’m thinking I might stay in the UK and live here…

    Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 2:17 am | Permalink
  38. mumble wrote:

    You… threw away all your childhood books?

    Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 9:10 am | Permalink
  39. Jen wrote:

    Mumble, I don’t know that I had any childhood books at that point. I’ve read an enormous amount throughout my life, and that many books took up too much space by my standards even when I had a house to put them in. I’ve always kept up a pretty good recycling system of dropping them back off at used bookstores. I’m unlikely to read them again, and I can remember them just as fondly while someone else gets to read them, too!

    Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink
  40. gillian wrote:

    My 97-year-old grandmother (a former librarian and life-long reader) once said she loved a book so much she ‘read it in gulps’. That is how I read this. So happy to have found you!

    Sunday, May 22, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink
  41. Shane wrote:

    This is such a great idea I think I have to do this. Last week over at Oh, Noa, Noa asked what everyone would save in case their house caught on fire.
    I didn’t even really think about it: kids, wife, pictures. That was it. Then I started thinking about why in the hell I’ve been collecting and shuffling so much crap. Looks like you have the answer. Keep it coming!

    Monday, May 23, 2011 at 1:39 am | Permalink
  42. Tim wrote:

    An ascetic secular life – sounds like a wise plan. I guess you took William Morris’ dictum “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” to a logical Honda sized conclusion. The fact my wife has just sent me a link to your blog suggests she is dropping a hint. I just hope she doesn’t want a new car.

    Monday, May 23, 2011 at 3:19 am | Permalink
  43. Sam wrote:

    1. Honda Elements rock. Favorite. Car. Ever.

    2. Purging material stuff is a strikingly physical way to experience an inner spotlight. It’s real and I think it matters. However, I’ve also felt the same awareness of myself during times of intentional fasting from the Internets/Books/Media and also when I’ve had to give up alcohol or chocolate. It’s something about removing crutches I place in my life to avoid living…. whether physical objects or the less tangible (but no less muddled) ways I spend my time.

    Bravo. This is so inspiring.

    Monday, May 23, 2011 at 5:12 pm | Permalink
  44. Rebeca wrote:

    Good luck in your new adventure!

    Tuesday, May 24, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink
  45. spacegirl wrote:

    I laughed out loud and said ‘Wow’ a few times reading this. Do you have pictures of the space you live in?

    Friday, May 27, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Permalink
  46. JN wrote:

    I did something similar about 4 years ago. You so eloquently put it all into words. Esp the part about the tea cup.

    Thursday, June 2, 2011 at 9:05 pm | Permalink
  47. What a beautiful post! I came over here from a link at Rachel’s The Minimalist Mom and I’m glad I did.

    What a journey to undertake! Liberating! We did the same thing a few years ago, fitting everything we owned into a small hatchback. It was the best adventure I could have chosen. Many blessings on your journey.

    Monday, June 6, 2011 at 6:50 am | Permalink
  48. Joanna wrote:

    Totally resonates with me. After my divorce I got my entire life down to 3 storage containers. 3.
    Best.Feeling.Ever.

    Tuesday, June 7, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Permalink
  49. Beach Mama wrote:

    I love anyone who makes me laugh (well, just about anyone, my ex-husband makes me laugh . . .) and this post had me laughing out loud sitting alone at my desk.

    To address “we’re always saying life is too short . . .” you ‘got’ this long before I did in life and I’m envious. Envious of all the time I spent building houses and slugging through a 26 year going nowhere marriage. The simpler the better is my motto in the second half of life. I’m a freak to my 15 year-old son who wants more things; more dirt bikes, more pick-up truck accessories, bicycles, shoes and more girlfriends.

    Whatever . . .

    Your ‘No Children Were Harmed’ poem made me cry. I love anyone who makes me cry (in a good way).

    I found you through Katy Dunnet and happy I did. Looking forward to more laughing and crying . . . in a good way : )

    Thursday, June 16, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Permalink
  50. monica wrote:

    love this.

    Hope you had fantastic trip.

    (Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful)

    Wednesday, June 22, 2011 at 11:45 am | Permalink
  51. L wrote:

    Great writing. I don’t need any more urging to pare down my possessions: I’ve read through many minimalist blogs and they’ve stopped inspiring me.

    “The less you own, the harder it is to hide from everything still wrong with you.” – that is so true for me! I realized it when I was away from home and living out of a backpack, and I was staying in the same place for a little while and ALL I had to do with my time was spend time with people (normally I organize my room… a lot). It was so refreshing…

    In fact I think I’m going to go do SOMETHING to get my life back like that. I want to be that person again…

    (As I said before… great writing, if you can inspire me :) )

    Sunday, August 14, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Permalink
  52. DanielleH wrote:

    I love this. I did something similar in 2002 (but with far less planning) and ended up in Alaska for four years.

    Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 5:43 am | Permalink
  53. Christine wrote:

    I’m on a journey to get rid of 10,000 things in 100 days. At day, 64, I’ve started to wonder what I’ll do with my time when I finish. Well, I just figured it out. I am going to learn to write as well as you. 10,000 thanks for the best thing I’ve read in as many years.

    Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 10:25 pm | Permalink
  54. tori wrote:

    “You become almost the only particularly notable thing you own”- Brilliant. Heard about your blog from Jim and I’m so happy he recommended it. I think I could learn a thing or twelve from you!

    Thursday, November 17, 2011 at 7:56 am | Permalink
  55. Paul wrote:

    Wow! What a fantastic post. What an amazing bit of courage to cast most of your ‘things’ aside and go an a journey of ’self’. Yes, it’s very hard to hide when you don’t have distractions. I will certainly add you to my blogroll and my RSS reader! :)

    Saturday, December 3, 2011 at 5:26 am | Permalink

16 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] This lovely piece about minimalism, life and other wisdom from The Trephine. I think Jennifer is one of the most talented bloggers in the history of bloggers, and this piece is a perfect demonstration of why. An excerpt:  “The less you own, the harder it is to hide from everything still wrong with you. All of the dreams you have yet to realize, even now that your childhood is startlingly far behind you, are suddenly so much more starkly visible once you can’t distract yourself by petting fabric swatches or rearranging your bookshelves.” [...]

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  13. Questioning minimalism… « Just a Titch on Thursday, September 29, 2011 at 8:10 am

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  16. Things I Love This Week « Coffee & Sunshine on Saturday, May 12, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    [...] This lovely piece about minimalism, life and other wisdom from The Trephine. I think Jennifer is one of the most talented bloggers in the history of bloggers, and this piece is a perfect demonstration of why. An excerpt:  “The less you own, the harder it is to hide from everything still wrong with you. All of the dreams you have yet to realize, even now that your childhood is startlingly far behind you, are suddenly so much more starkly visible once you can’t distract yourself by petting fabric swatches or rearranging your bookshelves.” [...]