“My greatest skill has been to want little.”– Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
I lit a match and threw it on my most prestigious Emmy award. It was soaked in lighter fluid, so it erupted immediately into a big ball of flame. I watched as the “Nick Conedera” printed on the award slowly disintegrated into black death. It was my third and most coveted Emmy award which I won in high school for a short film I did called Melvin(2006), a coming-of-age story about a boy who adopts and loses his pet snail he named Melvin. It was the first major production that I did on my own outside of school. I wrote the script, storyboarded it, casted one of my best friends, shot it, edited it, chose the music, even did the titles myself. It was charming, adorable, fun, meaningful, and poignant – the perfect blend of both entertainment and substance. A near-perfect short film. It got recognition at every festival and competition in San Diego, garnering about half a dozen laurels and awards. Because my first major attempt at telling my own stories was so wildly successful with such a simple short film, it was a very meaningful award to me. The object itself gave me a sense of significance, knowing that I was good at something, that I was worth something, that my life had meaning. I identified so much with the identity of being a talented and decorated filmmaker. Without that identity… who am I?
For a second I feared that seeing my name fade into black oblivion meant that I was fading into black oblivion myself. But once the flames transmuted my attachment into a pile of carbon, I felt a weight lift. I felt lighter. And it became easier. So I followed suit with the rest of my awards – 30 or so trophies, certificates, glass, and plastic that I had been carrying around for over a decade to prove my worth to the world.
I moved quite a bit after film school, and every time I had to lighten the load. I got rid of skateboards, bikes, books, knick-knacks, furniture, art over and over again. But the things that I did keep were most important to me: art that I never displayed, old journals that I never read, yearbooks that I never opened, film equipment that I never used, my camera collection, and my awards. So much stuff that I continued to hang on to because I was so attached to it. I was attached to the identity or feeling the memory or nostalgia gave me. Those journals are me, those awards are me, those yearbooks are me, those cameras are me… how can I get rid of a piece of myself? Imagine getting rid of your hand or your ear or your liver.
The awards were especially meaningful to me. No matter where I lived, I always made sure my trophies were the first thing you saw when you entered my home. But other than a moment of my ego’s shameless pleasure when I noticed somebody’s silent awe of my trophy case, they gave me no more value than that.
I knew that part of the process of preparing for the minimalism of vanlife meant getting rid of my possessions. I’m not a very material person (in fact I hate Christmas), but getting rid of certain objects was really hard for me. Not surprisingly, the more I did it, the easier it got, until I was able to get rid of everything that was not a direct daily contribution to my survival. I sold all my electronics and old equipment on Craigslist. I donated or gifted all my furniture. And burned the rest. Ok, I did keep some art and some books and some family photos that are still in storage. And my dad wouldn’t let me get rid of my camera collection because I inherited much of it from my grandfather. So there were a few items important enough to keep in the family. But other than that, the van had to be able to fit my entire life including clothes, toiletries, kitchen stuff, food, water, important documents, and film equipment that allowed me to make a living.
You may have heard of the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. It always sounded so cheesy to me, but it wasn’t until I watched the documentary Minimalism(2015) that it really began to make sense. There is something magical that happens when you cleanse your life of material possessions. The book suggests that you hold each object close to your heart to feel its energy. If it doesn’t make you feel good or add value to your life, then put it in the discard pile. All the stuff you own ends up owning you because of an invisible energetic tie you have to it. Once I got rid of it all, my life was simpler and less cluttered, I did feel lighter, and I was actually happier. Strange, I know. I would have never guessed. I found out that the more I cleansed from my life, the more room there was for newer/better things to enter. And I’m not talking about just material possessions – there was more room for greater clarity, new ideas, opportunities, and relationships. Somewhere along the way, I learned how to get attention through achievement and recognition. Sometimes we confuse love with attention. That’s how our social stratification system is set up, for better or worse. We get social status, acceptance, and power from success/achievement. But it was time for me to replace society’s superficial love/acceptance with true self-love, giving myself the love I know I deserve, not because of what I’ve done, but because of who I am inside. The more love you give yourself, the more you will receive from me and everybody else.