I looked at myself in the dressing room mirror. I was surrounded by a pile of discounted pencil skirts and work-appropriate blouses. “Why am I here?” I thought.
Yet again, I was shopping for clothes I didn’t like, for a job I didn’t want, with money I didn’t have. And it was the third time that week! Yet, somehow, I felt like I needed to be there because despite having a closet full of clothes, I never had anything to wear. None of my various articles of silk, lace, or cotton brought me any semblance of joy. Everything was either an imitation of my coworker’s outfits, a hand-me-down from a friend, or something I’d once felt obligated to purchase due to the apparent bargain of its sale price. Looking in my closet brought me dread. It reminded me that I was living the life of somebody I didn’t recognize. Somebody I didn’t want to be.
When I moved to Chicago in 2012, it was a whim decision, a choice made from a friend’s persuasion and a naïve yearning for adventure. I was freshly post-grad and eager to find a place to call home. Unsurprisingly, I had a miserable transition. I was cold, I was alone, and I was not handling either of these facts particularly well. But I persevered for two years, giving it my best effort, just trying to survive my dull desk job while maintaining high hopes for success in the theater world.
Eventually, I needed an escape. One evening, after a particularly trying day, I was ranting to an old college friend about feeling overworked and how I was in need of a change. He felt the same way and randomly suggested we take a trip to Europe together. I was all in and couldn’t wait for my first international adventure.
My first trip abroad was soul-awakening. For the first time in years (or maybe ever) I felt like myself. I felt light and liberated. I never wanted it to end. But it did end, and I returned to my normal life.
My first thought walking into my apartment in Chicago after an amazing month in Italy, Spain, and Portugal was, “Holy shit, I have a lot of stuff.” I never before realized I owned so many things I never used or even forgot existed. I opened drawers and gasped, gazing at the dozens of t-shirts, yoga pants, jeans, and dresses I hadn’t worn in years. Living out of my small backpack with a handful of clothing items made me realize how little I actually needed to survive. I was unnecessarily holding on to so much. I began to see my possessions didn’t seem to fit me. The longer I was home, the more I realized that it wasn’t just my stuff; the life I created for myself didn’t seem to fit me either.
After six months of trying to readjust to life in Chicago, I made a radical choice. I decided to leave everything and travel for an indefinite period of time. I left my job, my apartment, and everything in it, save for a backpack, a few boxes that went into storage, and the man I fell in love with along the way. Once I committed to my choice, I was amazed by how easy it was to cut ties with everything. As soon as I released my grip on the things I was clinging to so tightly, I realized they were just weights that were holding me down to a place in which I did not belong. And while it was scary to let go of things I might need in the future (but what if I need that kettle to make tea later?!) it was amazing to rid myself of items that felt necessary for living, only to find I could get along just fine without them (a saucepan boils water just as effectively, by the way.)
When I returned to the United States after six incredible months in thirteen countries, my boyfriend and I decided to plant our roots in Los Angeles, a city that had been on both of our minds for years. While I was excited to begin a new adventure, I was also terrified. Half a year of owning only what I could carry on my back had made me the happiest I’d ever been. I was scared that filling an apartment with possessions would add extra weight to a new way of living that brought me so much joy.
That’s when I made a commitment to myself to retain my life of minimalism. I vowed to be intentional with every item I brought into our new home. If it wasn’t useful or didn’t bring me joy, it had no place in my sanctuary. I also decided not to hold onto anything that stopped serving me. If I didn’t need it, I would sell or donate it. I wanted to design a space that felt completely and authentically me.
I realized that creating a new home didn’t have to add heaviness, but was rather an opportunity to release the weight I’d been, quite literally, carrying on my back. I had a new, clean space in front of me to transform exactly as I wished. I turned my Pinterest boards into a reality by creating a capsule wardrobe. I bought vegan cookbooks and used them to experiment in my new kitchen. I carefully chose soft new sheets, fluffy towels, and calming scented candles. I mindfully built my simple home, piece by piece.
After almost a year in Los Angeles, I can happily report that I still probably own less stuff than anybody I know. But I’m also not scared to purchase items that I need or, as my hippie mom used to say, “speak to me.” Now when I open my closet to get dressed in the morning, my heart lights up. I see carefully chosen items that I love, and that I’m proud to own. And the best part is, I also know my heart would be just as light without them.
Also by Ashley: 5 Science-Backed Ways Spring Cleaning Changes Your Life (No Kondo-ing Needed)
How A Plant-Based Diet Helped Me Find Body Acceptance
Related: How Paris Turned Me On To Minimalism & 4 Ways to Do It Anywhere
Get more like this–sign up for our newsletter for exclusive inspirational content!