Living Life Intentionally

How moving her family across the country caused a small-town girl to break up with her stuff

Words by Christen Peterson

I grew up in a little coastal town in California. There was always food on the table and heat for the colder days. The few houses I lived in were modest, and I remember there was usually “just enough” Looking back, I can now see how my simple upbringing shaped my love of minimalism.

Some people choose to live a minimalist lifestyle; for others, it’s chosen for them. It was the latter for me. Growing up, I can’t remember there ever being an excess of anything. Of course, I had friends who had a little, and I had friends who had a lot. Sometimes I wished I was able to buy something all my friends had, but staying on top of trends in the ’90s was nothing like how it is today. One of the reasons I am glad I grew up without social media.

My dad was a huge outdoors person, so while we did enjoy our share of Mario Brothers, my sister and I grew up making forts outside, playing with our dog, mixing random items into magical potions, and eating lunch at the park. We also went on a yearly trip to Yosemite. I remember looking out my window for hours on the way there. No iPad, no cell phone. These things didn’t exist, and because of this, we learned how to entertain ourselves organically.

I moved from California to Idaho around 19 and lived there for over 17 years. However, it wasn’t until I had children that my bad habit of holding onto items just in case became an issue. Idaho had basements. California did not . . . so I found myself with extra space that I wasn’t used to having. A place downstairs where I could put stuff until I figured out what to do with it.

I love a spotless house and to be organized. Part of this stems from the fact that my brain tends to wander at times, so if everything is as it should be, it’s a lot easier for me to be productive. I began to find it difficult to keep our house spotless and organized when there was not a home for all our items. To most people, my house looked clean and organized . . . and it mostly was, but there is something in the hearts of minimalists that keeps us self-aware enough to know when we’re getting off track, and I was getting off track.

My husband was offered a position in Florida, and I was so excited to get back to the beach and simple life that I remembered. Flip flops by the door, sand in the car (just kidding! I vacuum that up ASAP). Plus, Florida doesn’t have basements, so a problem was solved for me before we even left. I figured we would be fine fitting our stuff on one level, especially since we have taught the kids to embrace donating from a young age. I thought, because of this, there was no way they would have too much stuff to bring.

We tried to donate everything useable that someone else might need every few months. My kids are used to making piles to keep and piles to donate, so when my husband and I were getting ready to move from Idaho to Florida, I was shocked at just how much we had accumulated. Again, I would like to blame all of this on the fact that our home in Idaho had a basement. The basement is where things go to die and be forgotten.

“Sure, I’ll take that! I’ll put it in the basement until I figure out where it should go!” (Narrator’s voice: But she never did find somewhere for it to go.)

I would also like to blame the copious amount of donations that had to be purged before moving,on our three children . . . but the fact is that somewhere along the way, I had forgotten we just didn’t need so many things. Maybe I was making up for my “just enough” childhood by accumulating things just in case. Maybe I wanted my kids to have more than I ever did. There was probably a multitude of reasons I found myself muttering “I forgot I had this” while my husband and I were packing up the house, and it was not lost on me that I had slowly collected more than I ever intended to.

My husband and I set out to drive across the country with the biggest Uhaul available, and some items that we did not need to bring —but we would learn that later. Here’s the interesting thing though: while I am not particularly sentimental about holding onto certain things, and I don’t have any issue with purging old items, I still had the “be prepared” mentality, which caused me to bring along several items we didn’t need. How long would it take someone to go through five bottles of magnesium? I was about to find out.

One of the things that can be difficult (especially as a parent) with minimalism, is knowing how much of something you need to have on hand, and over-giving because you want your child to have more than you did. Figuring out how to be prepared, but not over-prepared, is difficult for some turning to minimalism. One bottle of Motrin should be enough for a bit . . . but what if one child gets sick and uses most of it and then there’s not enough? Or what if they decide they don’t like the taste of the orange one? Maybe there should have a few flavor backups, but how many? How many are too many?

The struggle with minimalism doesn’t always involve things like too many clothes, or stacks of old photos in the garage. Minimalism is also about knowing how much of something to have on hand, how to become self-aware enough to know if the past is creeping into your decision making and buying, and becoming organized with your time.

This is one of my favorite thoughts that I remind myself o often.: We don’t buy things with money, we buy them with hours from our life. Or, as Henry David Thoreau put it:

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”

I believe that, at some point, those who struggle with the just-in-case mindset will have to either stay hoarding and collecting or accept the uncertainty that an item may not be available when it’s needed. Sometimes it’s not as cut and dry as it appears, and if we don’t get to the root of the problem, symptoms will keep popping up in our lifestyle. We may want our children to have more than we did growing up, but what they will really remember is the time we spent with them, the cuddles when they were sick, and the laughter around the dinner table.

My husband and I have now lived in Florida for almost two and a half years now. We have a nice house that we can afford, and while we have more than just enough, my husband and I are very intentional about what we own and spend money and time on. I believe (mostly) that everything should have a purpose, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful or enjoyable. I encourage anyone struggling with clutter and disorganization to be mindful of a possible underlying reason why you are struggling, to find a community (Facebook has several) where you can get support, and to be kind to yourself as you begin to navigate minimalism.

Christen Peterson

Christen loves cleaning, organizing her space, and helping others become organized. She is a marketing director for a private school and also works at a creative agency. Christen is married to a pastor, and they have three girls and three rescue dogs. She enjoys eating delicious food, taking naps, and going to the beach.

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Inside Minimalism is our series of exclusive essays on simple living. Each essay is written by our team of writers who are passionate about helping you craft a simpler life. Supported by their own personal experiences, we want to inspire and encourage you to clear the path of life’s stuff, so you can get to where you really want to be.

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