Speculation on Minimalism and Sentimentality

Words and Photos by Alexis Gresh

This article originally appeared in BELOVED Magazine.

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In the fall of 1967, a couple just barely into their twenties but very much in love married and made a home on Lightner Street. They settled their family in that house, raising kids and grandkids, hosting every holiday, celebrating every win and mourning every loss with any family member within those walls. They marked the space with a language of memory that only loved ones could understand. They saw two generations through that house before leaving it in the fall of 2009. The 42 years in between were the beginning of my family. That house laid the foundation for what "home" has come to mean for me, and is the reason I believe so vehemently in the proverbial grandmother's attic full of knick knacks. 

Almost to my mid-twenties, I'm single and have lived in seven different places in the past three years. Needless to say, I haven't quite built the same legacy of home as my grandparents had at this stage of their lives. But as even they have eventually come to realize, home can look a little different in the landscape of the new millennium. The concept of home is much more mobile than it used to be.

For me, it fits into three big suitcases. The same three see me to every place I move, though the spaces they see me to vary. I've had cinderblock walls, putrid yellow walls, breathtaking 15th century European walls, back to mom and dad's walls, and finally a nice place I can afford walls. And I take the same three suitcases full of the same items to set the tone of home no matter where I go. 

The contents of these suitcases are significant because they are all of the objects I call mine. Once we call things ours, we tend to attach pieces of our heart to them. They mean something to us because they represent or exercise some idea, belief, or activity that we value. Sometimes the attachment to the object may just feel so fundamental that it is impossible to truly verbalize. But the meanings hidden across all of our belongings say so much about us, even if we do not have the words. Our objects tell our stories for us. You know something about a person having found a menagerie of worn books on their shelves, a collection of postcards taped on their fridge, a Bible on their nightstand, or empty glass bottles beneath their bed. They're not just objects--they are landmarks of a way of life. We choose what objects to make our own because they relate to some part of who we are. Ownership is the doorway to sentimentality. 

You know something about a person having found a menagerie of worn books on their shelves, a collection of postcards taped on their fridge, a Bible on their nightstand, or empty glass bottles beneath their bed. They’re not just objects—they are landmarks of a way of life.

In the 21st century, we have limitless access to ownership. Anything we may want is not only available, it'll get here with free two-day shipping. Regrettably, with this excessive availability comes the temptation to give our ownership to too much. Many of us have swung the pendulum, desiring to declutter the unnecessary by becoming careful curators of our ownership. We've chosen scarcity as a means of cutting out excess and determining what our needs are, embracing the trend of minimalism. 

I keep three suitcases. It's my balancing act on the tightrope tied between sentimentality and minimalism. My method of balancing hinges on one rule: all of my items must either be demonstrative of the things that have made me, the person who I am in the present, or who I aspire to become. So, I keep all of the things that remind me of all the love that shaped me and the dreams that were steps to where I am now by saving all of my father's letters and decorating with old sheet music from my five semesters as a failed music student. I collect the things that remind me to stay in the moment and enjoy who and where I am by keeping gifts from friends that evidence how well they know me, or by gathering various paraphernalia from whatever my current obsessive hobby is. And I hold dearly the things that point me in the direction that I want to go by carefully arranging the stacks of books that contain all the knowledge I want, investing in the tools I need to accomplish my goals, and thoughtfully curating my inventory to remove the articles that no longer benefit or represent me. All in three suitcases.

My last lease was only two months. Some people don't get all of their boxes unpacked in that time, but I wish you could feel what the space felt like during my brief residence there. It epitomized home. The house was far from perfect, but what my roomate and I filled it with was perfect for us. A circa 2001 CD player called back to our childhoods by acting as our sole source of entertainment for the house, faithfully filling it with the nostalgic ambiance of when CDs were still a thing. The refrigerator collected all sorts of inspiration from pop culture--from news headlines to ironic prints of celebrity Instagram posts, our fridge door decor kept us motivated and amused by current happenings. Our crotchety kitchen boasted an overstock of cutting boards and spices that we could never possibly use to their extent, but kept us looking forward to our next chance at hostessing and sharing our table with friends. We didn't own a lot, but what we did was just what we needed to appreciate our past, present, and future selves. Because of these things, the space perfectly served its purpose during our short stay there. It was minimal, but meaningful.

It may be a while until I "settle down." Until then, I'm staying mobile enough to chase every opportunity as soon as it calls. So I'll keep walking the tightrope between minimal and meaningful, scarce and sentimental. That's where I choose to make my home. Because when it comes down to it, my grandparents' house never felt like home because of the place. Home wasn't the things. It was where I began. The place was only a repository for memories to be made--memories that set me on the track to become who I am now, and that continue to fuel my future. It birthed and nurtured my family, my love and hope, my sense of belonging. And it's the first place I felt a sense of ownership over who I am--a person at home wherever I am.