Only Small Things: Reflections on Excess

Solo Runner“You think you have to want more than you need. Until you have it all, you won’t be free.”
Jerry Hannan, “Society”

This week, I’ll be moving. Again. My ninth move in the past seven years.

In the weeks leading up to a move, I inevitably go through a familiar cycle of emotions. First, overwhelm. Second, excitement. Third, utter distress at how—despite my best intentions to live a simple life—I’ve accrued masses and masses of stuff.

You don’t notice it when you’re settled somewhere. Things expand to fill the space available. When you’re striving to make a rented space feel like home, you appreciate the framed artwork. You relish the plates and bowls and hand-crafted mugs, the kitchen appliances, the scrapbooks and candles and pillows, the old magazines, the decorative rugs, the houseplants, the crafting supplies, the espresso cups, the outdoor gear that reminds you of your wildest adventures in the mountains, the books that have accompanied you since childhood.

But when you’re faced with the task of squeezing all those things into boxes, and all those boxes into a truck or the back of a car, the same items can feel like a burden.

Part of what I love about running is its simplicity. The same could be said of hiking or backpacking or any number of pursuits that draw us into the wilds—it is a tremendous gift to be reminded of the superfluity of the vast majority of our possessions. The act of running long distances in the mountains forces us to boil our necessities down to what fits inside a single pack on our back—some food, some water, a light, some extra layers for warmth. For a day, that is all we need.

And if that’s all we need for a day, what is all we need for two days? For a week? For a month? For a lifetime?

Moving to a small studio apartment in Telluride helped me simplify. When we moved here last December, I donated several dozen trash bags filled with things I didn’t need to local families or thrift shops. It felt deliciously freeing. I was confident I’d purged myself of all superfluous possessions.

And yet, five months later, I look at how many things I held on to before that I still have not used in the time since—have not worn, have not read, have not watched or listened to or derived value from in any way—and I realize that I still have a long ways to go.

In this way, I’m grateful for the opportunity, yet again, to move—to reduce, to minimize, to whittle my life closer to its essentials.

Perhaps this is all at the forefront of my mind because I spend a good deal of my working life these days on the Internet—reading, researching, trading emails about story ideas with editors. The Internet, despite having the appearance of taking up no physical space, is in many ways the epitome of excess. Social-media feeds and infinite-scroll content-engines are bottomless pits.

Mental excess can be just as exhausting as—if not more than—physical excess.

When I was 10, I thought it would be possible to read every single book in my elementary-school library during my lifetime. Eager and confident as 10-year-olds are wont to be, I set that goal for myself. (Ha!) Yet, today, I’m no less afflicted by the same folly of ambition; there are days when I still believe, on some subconscious level, that with enough time and effort, I can read every single thing of value on the Internet.

Of course that’s ludicrous. I lose hours of my life to the rabbit hole of believing that reading everything is an attainable, let alone worthy, goal. To believe in that pursuit, even subconsciously, is setting myself up to feel perpetually overwhelmed. Dissatisfied, in the same way that some people believe the infinite accrual of material possessions can be a road to happiness. It’s possible to squander a life this way.

As passionate as I feel about writing, I sometimes worry that creating more and more “content” is only adding noise to an already cluttered universe. Why is the act of creation, of making something, valued so highly in our society when—as Debbie Chachra pointed out in an essay earlier this year in The Atlantic—“it’s not all that clear that the world needs more stuff”?

When I run in the mountains, I create nothing. I’m not adding to the clamor of the world. I’m not making, coveting or accruing anything. In fact, I’m doing the opposite: the key to success in ultrarunning is quieting the mind, lightening one’s load. The less baggage you carry, the better.

Telluride MountainsOf course, I don’t mean to call into question the immense value of creative work—nor even the merit of some material goods. I love my ink pens, my cast-iron skillet, my shelves of tattered, well-loved books. I love the box I keep of newspaper or magazine clippings, of stories and essays that have touched my soul and reminded me that good writing creates value, not noise.

While sorting through papers once again in preparation for moving, I came across an essay I saved long ago but had not read in years. Entitled “No Great Things”—a reference to Mother Teresa’s words, “We can do no great things—only small things, with great love”—it was written by David James Duncan and published in a 2006 issue of Orion.

Duncan writes, “The only spiritually responsible way I know to be a citizen, artist, or activist is by giving little or no thought to things such as saving the planet, achieving world peace, or stopping neocon greed. Great things tend to be undoable things. Small things, lovingly done, are always within our reach.”

“What a relief!” he writes. “Instead of waking each morning and defining myself as an impotent war protester in an America run by oil-worshiping thugs, I started waking up and thinking, ‘Okay. What small thing can I do today with love?’ Mother’s advice gave me permission to do stuff like play with my kids and go fishing again.”

Goose on a pond in a rainstormLife is not about having or doing “it all.” There is certainly a time for creating, for doing—but, perhaps in our haste to glorify “making” culture, in all its manifestations, we overlook the value of simply being. The smallest actions, when done with love, can be powerful indeed: traipsing quietly in the woods. Having a long-winded conversation with an old friend. Smiling at a stranger on the street. Spending a Sunday morning late one April to watch snow float down from the sky and blanket a small mountain town in western Colorado.