The Art of Subtraction

I remember subtraction being a big deal in first grade. There were dinosaur eggs on the classroom bulletin board with our names on them and, although I distinctly recall not liking subtraction (addition was so much easier!), I loved my teacher and school and wanted to do well. I don’t know what the dinosaur eggs were about, but I do remember that I got pretty competitive with a boy in my math class and desperately wanted to beat him. Conclusion? Subtraction was important–in fact, wholly fundamental to my six-year-old self’s sense of success.

I reencountered subtraction decades later, albeit in another form. You see, by this point, I had amassed more than dinosaur math certificates. In my defense, it was a ‘normal’ amount of stuff for someone my age. Nothing too excessive, although it seemed less than others due to the fact that I was extremely organized.

One day, as many have, I stumbled onto a channel about minimalism. This coincided with the season in my life where I planned to leave my job and travel for a while, and suddenly, I became obsessed with the idea of fitting everything I owned into my car (a compact vehicle), or perhaps, a single backpack? In other words, it was time to subtract.

Beginning with the KonMari categories–clothes, books, papers, komono [miscellaneous], and sentimental–I quickly discovered that this was going to be a long-term project. All of the categories were thoroughly represented. I had much more than I realized, quietly tucked away in neat little boxes and file folders. And binders. As a teacher and writer, the binders were clearly a #situation.

Who was I kidding? All of it was a situation! And Marie Kondo had neglected to include a “digital papers” category. We weren’t even going to think about that. The computer claimed I had in excess of 50,000 files. Gulp.

When I took a step back, The Things looked like a museum of yours truly. Every puzzle piece of my life was represented, in one way or another. The good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, the old, the new, the places, the people, the traveling–everything. I valued my story, reflected often on my journey; but did it all need to be physically represented? Why did it feel like a weight, anchoring me to… me?

Two memories resurfaced here. One winter morning at school, there was a fire drill. I was in a serious ‘dance is everything’ phase at the time, to the extreme that I used to wear ballet slippers to teach [Spanish] in all day. When the alarm went off and we all filed outside to a freezing wintry wonderland–flakes swirling all about–the only thing I had time to do was to slip on my boots over the dance shoes. I didn’t grab my key fob or phone or anything. And I still remember standing out there, absolutely freezing, realizing that if it had been a real fire, I didn’t have anything. Nothing. And it was so incredibly freeing.

A similar thing happened when I was living in Argentina. It was the day before we were flying home, and I had a ton of laundry to do. So I filled a bag with all of the clothes I had brought with me, and walked to the laundromat. It was a different place than I normally frequented, and there, you put the bag over a counter, and they gave you a ticket: you returned a few hours later to pick up your things; I was unaccustomed to this, having always done my own laundry.

However, I had just read about businesses “disappearing” overnight, and a startling thought entered my mind as I walked away: what if the laundromat wasn’t there when I returned? All of my clothes, gone in an instant. I was only a block away, but the thought–no bag, no nothing–made me feel lighter than a feather, lighter than I’d ever felt. [And numerous empanadas and pastries full of dulce de leche consumed while there, assured me that it wasn’t my physical weight!] I skipped back to my apartment, joyful as ever… while also wondering, why?

These memories lay dormant until I began sorting through my things. The big names in minimalism and decluttering were onto something: “Living With Less” (The Minimalists); “Be More With Less” (Courtney Carver); and my personal favorite, “I Think We Could Be Friends” (The Minimal Mom). The overarching idea here led me right back to my first grade math lesson–subtraction. Very un-mathematically, however, less was now proving to be more.

I knew that I couldn’t succeed with subtraction now just because I wanted to impress my teacher or beat a classmate. I knew that I couldn’t escape it by moving onto multiplication or geometry or algebraic functions. I was subtracting now for myself, for clarity. We had to make our peace. When I was six, I didn’t have enough life experience to think about deleting. The concept itself was probably frightening. But now it was time to tidy up The Cluttered Museum, my museum.

Maybe subtraction wasn’t scary, the more I thought about it. Artists and chefs began with a clean palette. Developers started with an empty lot of land. Designers craved the simplicity of white walls. It had to do with possibilities, that scintillating sparkle of newness. The winds were shifting. I wanted all that and more. But the process was arduous, taxing, exhausting. The more I decluttered, the more there seemed to be.

Months passed, and my organization abilities were refined as I researched more and more about the topic. Cass from Clutterbug helped to explain why my organizational preferences did not always work for other people. Miss Minimalist pointed out how to be extraordinarily honest with yourself and Declutter Your Fantasy Self, whereas this list from the Making Lemonade Blog allowed you to plod along at your own pace, gradually decluttering mini categories. Eventually, I started making progress, and then one day, I realized that–just as Marie Kondo encourages–I was surrounded by the things I loved.

Stuff comes in, stuff goes out. But these days, I find the latter much more common. This subtractive process of getting rid of the superfluous and being intentional about everything you own, of surrounding yourself only with things that spark joy, of sitting with your things and really thinking about why you are holding onto them, has changed everything.

Let us not forget that this is, most assuredly, a process. Evidently, my training began at age six.