Seeing as how I manage a blog about how to live with less, you would think that I am very good at de-cluttering my life. Alas alack, there are many forms of clutter and while I do really well with ridding our home from physical clutter and my mind of mental clutter, one type of clutter plagues my heart. I suffer from an intolerable case of aspirational clutter, and it is this clutter that I would argue has impaired my life the most.
Aspirational clutter invades every aspect of my life, and sufferers will know just how paralyzing it can be. In the physical realm, aspirational clutter includes all the things you purchased that you never use but you hold on to for the “one day I will”s. For example, a surfboard purchased in the hopes of learning how to surf despite being a night owl. Or the outfits that aren’t really your style but maybe when you lose weight or become more comfortable in your skin, or whatever the excuse might be, you might throw it on then. Or in extreme cases, it’s the house located in a posh neighborhood that can’t really be afforded but that can be used to pretend like you are a status above reality. And though the mortgage is killing you and you can barely make the rent after each paycheck, you still funnel even more money into home improvements and invite whoever may grant you their time to show them what you have been able to “buy”. It could be the ski poles purchased by those who hate the cold, or coffee gadgets purchased by tea lovers, it could be the tickets to an opera purchased by opera haters who want to seem “edu-ma-cated”, you see what I mean? Escaping aspirational clutter requires a solid sense of who you really are and an ability to not give two cents about where you think other people want you to be. A practice in the de-cluttering process is actually very helpful with addressing aspirational clutter in the physical sense, and I have honed in on this part over the course of two years and really know what things define me.
In the mental realm, aspirational clutter is the thing that prevents the monkey mind from calming done. As the monkey swings from tree to tree, the human brain swings from to-do list to to-do list. Even meditating is part of the to-do list, and those who suffer from this type of aspirational clutter think about checking off “meditating” in the middle of meditation so that they can move on to the next thing. Aspirational clutter in the mental realm is the barrier between you and the present. Most sufferers live their lives in the future. There is no way to address this type of mental clutter but to train the brain into quieting itself and retreating into the recesses of nothingness. For me, I was able to escape with years of yoga and sitting in solace, which I was luckily always comfortable enough to do. Once in solace, the brain doesn’t just stop, as insomniacs will tell you. Frankly, sometimes, that’s when it wants to speed up most. Sometimes people think that the secret to commanding your brain to behave is to concentrate on the task, but I have found that letting it go is what works best. And giving it time. In the same way you let a child run wild versus trying to control them by telling them to sit still in a corner. Telling them to sit will result in a very twitchy child, but letting them go rampant gets rid of the jitters. Eventually, the energy will be spent and there’s nothing left for them to do but to lay down and rest. Same as the brain. Unfortunately, most people do not give their meditating enough time and space to get to that point.
But after suffering and overcoming both of these, I have found that there is still plenty of work to do. Because the thing I have not yet escaped from is the aspirational clutter that plagues my heart. It’s the one that causes me to dream up multiple lives for myself. It’s the one that pulls me to become a dentist, a dog-sitter, a writer, a baker, a photographer, a teacher, a world traveler, and who knows what else. At the root of it all is essentially a wish to be someone I’m currently not. It’s a suffering that is centered around a mild dissatisfaction with what I’ve accomplished thus far. That’s what aspirational clutter is, a wish to have more than what you do, be somewhere else rather than where you are, or be someone else that you are not.
In my case, it isn’t that I dislike dentistry. But the student debt has affected me so greatly that I have unrest with what dentistry has had to offer versus what it has cost. We all know that I think the trade-off was askew. It is this imbalance that has me searching for something else. I am pursuing jobs and professions that do not require me to return to school. Maybe I’m trying to prove that you can have a meaningful life, job, and purpose without needing formal education. I want to show people that you can start a business, become a writer, or a baker, without needing a business degree, an english course, or culinary school. I think that with the advent of technology, so many things can be self-taught and I would like to rid people of their dependence on formal education systems. But maybe more than this, I want to prove it to myself, because I am so upset at who I am and how I had gotten here.
I remember that time period after New Zealand really well. It was mid January, and I did not want to come back here. I did not want to look at my loans again or go back to work. We just backpacked through farmlands and slept in ramshackled houses surrounded by nature every day. I did not want to go back to being a piece of city living. I came back feeling very depressed. I got sick, for multiple weeks. The weather was damp and gloomy and grey. I kept looking out my window and seeing only flooded streets and homeless people, a contrast to the summer days and green valleys and hills that we had just left behind. Mike was still in a rut at his previous company, and he, too, was feeling a bit depressed at the current state of affairs. I remember reaching out to Sara from Rye Goods when I applied for the job. I said, “I am searching for something to complete my life, but I don’t know what.” When she offered me the gig, I threw myself into it.
So far, I have been doing swell. I’ve managed to continue working four to five days as a dentist, I’ve managed to create this space to write and landed two podcast recordings and a few interviews and features, I’ve established a dog-sitting gig on Rover.com, I’ve worked as an early-morning-baker for Rye Goods and I have opened my own bakery at Aero Bakery. This past week, I was asked to be the sole baker for me and Mike’s favorite coffee shop (which is the biggest honor EVER!) located across the street from where we live. They would rely on my bread and pastries entirely for their shop, but would require freshly baked good 7 days a week. Essentially, it would require of me a daily midnight shift. You would think I would be stoked, and I AM! But I also recognize this as the turning point, the point where I realize that I am greatly suffering from my aspirations themselves.
This opportunity is a wonderful opportunity. I would have the ability to really get my bakery going. Aero Bakery will be introduced to the local community. I will be able to support the work of local farmers trying to preserve heritage grains more fully. I have an opportunity to work together with a rotating coffee menu to create a matching seasonal baked goods menu. I would have a consistent source of support for the bakery. The production schedule would be forseeable, unlike when I accepted individual orders. My “job” as a baker will conveniently be at home without the need for a commute. My deliveries would change from multiple locations to just one across my street. I would fulfill my dream to be a baker, on my own terms, in my own house.
But I am tired. I quit Rye Goods in June because the midnight shifts were getting to be too much. I stopped Aero Bakery in June so that I could continue with Rye Goods and give myself a birthday break. During this time, I caught a glimpse of what life was before we got back from our trip to New Zealand. Before I became unsettled with the life I was leading and pursued baking. I had time to write, and read, and reflect. All of the things that gave me a very happy, calm, and peaceful life. Ever since I started my journey as a baker, I have been so busy that I never really noticed how much I gave up in terms of space and time. I was tired all the time, although the coffee masked it well. I lost ten pounds, although I never had any social time so that someone could point it out. My house became disorganized, and I started to rely more on conveniences. I lost a lot of the intentionality that I had established over the last two years.
Aspirational clutter can really hurt you. Down one path, it could spread your life too thin, make you run around like crazy, go through the hoops and even if you get out unscathed, it usually doesn’t give you enough time to stop, smell the roses, enjoy the journey. It allows you to live a life well-lived, but zaps your life of much of its essence. Alternatively, the opposite can be equally as intolerable. If you let an opportunity go, it could make your heart yearn for what could have been. It can make you wonder, “What if I had just gone for it?”. It could make you go stir-crazy. It could make you sad with the choice you’ve made for yourself, and resentful at all the factors that caused you to give it up.
I was attracted to my husband because he is the opposite from me. Unlike most people, he doesn’t suffer from any form of clutter. When I first met him, it made me worried. He didn’t seem to have any aspirations at all, which in our society tends to be viewed as a bad thing. Over time, I have seen and fallen in love with this lifestyle. His lack of aspiration stems from a whole-hearted contentment with his current life. His gratitude for what he already has been given is extremely grounding. I think it’s what allows him to be very happy and at peace at all times. It’s how I started to get into slow living in the first place, and recognize that a life full of aspiration could be detrimental, too. This is part of the reason why I married him. I needed this grounding, a daily reminder that we are enough as it is, and happiness lies in accepting that.
In fact, there was a study performed aimed at understanding why it is that younger people tend to pursue more things, have more social obligations, and do more in general, whereas older people tend to do less, socialize with a small group of close friends and family, and are content with simple daily tasks. They wondered if it was aging that prevented the older people to do more, or if it was wisdom. They wanted to know how these choices affect quality of life. Over 200 people from different age groups were followed for many years, and every five years, each one was contacted 35 times over the course of a two-week period to report their mood at that very moment. What the study showed was that the elderly had a higher level of happiness and contentment with their life. Could it be less stress? More meaningful relationships? Or is it an overall gratitude that keeps them from searching for more and makes life content?
So now I’m at a cross roads. My personality makes me want to chase a baker’s life. See where it leads me. But in my mind, and perhaps somewhere very deep in my heart, I also know that letting it go would be the choice that would give my life most peace. Am I so jaded with the student debt that I am running away from the profession I chose? I know that I could live an equally meaningful life focusing on dentistry alone, and then focusing on myself when I have moments at home. I have time to write and reflect, and this blog will continue to grow. I would be able to touch more young people and educate them about student loans and what not to do, and perhaps prevent more new grads from suffering the same thing that I am now. I could start over and work on getting back to where we were before I came back from New Zealand. It could be simple again. I could let the bakery go, bake only for myself and my family and have that be enough. If I was a good de-cluterrer, this is what I would do.
Or I could be a fiery little thing, take all that energy and funnel it into all the things. Break down barriers and make my home also my work place. Demolish the space and time I have so carefully created. Possibly crash and burn, take myself along with it, but potentially leave a mark. Be an example of living life to the very fullest. But will it ever be enough? I know the answer to that, but will I be strong enough to listen? Brave enough to say that this isn’t sustainable, that I’m only selfishly human? Humble enough to not need the bakery in order to know that I’m good at baking? Kind enough to forgive myself for choosing otherwise?
This is what aspirational clutter does. This is what I suffer from the most.