Chisara is a creative and author of “The Evolution Of a Saint.” She is currently working on a novel-in-verse based on the Biafran War and an Afrofuturist short story series. A minimalist who divides her time between Los Angeles, CA and Salerno, Italy along the Amalfi Coast, for Chisara space has become what she always thought it should be: functional, practical, meaningful and joyful.
1. Chisara! I know you through fellow writers and our connection with The Lemon Tree House. But I don’t know what inspired your journey to minimalism and life abroad. Before we get started, please tell readers a little bit about yourself.
I’m a first-gen American raised in beautiful Los Angeles, CA right along the coast. A “beach bum” in every sense of the phrase with a penchant for weekend getaways to the mountains. Being away from either (but especially the water) affects my health, something I learned living on the East Coast. Although my primary profession has been as a pediatrician, I am a creative, first and foremost. Though I have lived many lives and worked in many professions during this journey called life, I’m finding my way back to my creative core and this makes me happy.
2. What inspired you to start your journey to minimalism?
As life would have it, my minimalism journey actually started almost 2 years before I actually ever heard about minimalism. It was the result of me digging deep into my finances and making them work for me instead of the other way around. Most of my adult life, I lived in homes and apartments that always had more space than I needed for me and my belongings. Like 2-bedroom apartments or that one time I lived in a 3 bedroom townhouse. For one person that wasn’t necessary. But I did it anyway, because doctor’s don’t live small. I had learned early on that doctors need to live the high-life or else people will think they aren’t real doctors. (It’s true. Ask your doctor friends.) Mind you, I never paid an exorbitant amount of rent for these places. This wasn’t like, say, California or New York. But I realized I was spending too much money on too much space for one person. This raised a lot of ire with people close to me. “What about when people come to visit? Where will they stay,” was the most common rebuke. Understandably, for most immigrant families having a space for visitors (especially the long-term kind) is important. But given that I had never had one such visitor, planning for a day that wasn’t coming was an expensive investment. So my minimalist journey began with a decision to down-size and start living my life on my terms. Over time, this led to realizations and choices that ultimately led me to my spirit home, Italy.
3. Ah, Italy! I love Italy. When you decided to move abroad, I imagine you discovered how much stuff you actually owned… and how much you really didn’t need.
Ha! For as long as I can remember, I’ve held on to stuff. I am a historian by nature, a keeper of genealogies, stories and artifacts collected over time. But I wasn’t always careful about what I was bringing into my space materially or mentally. Sure it may have been interesting, shiny, cute, adorable, or my “goal dress” (thank god I don’t have those anymore), but those things often brought their own “energy” that weighed me down. When preparing to move abroad, I was forced to ask myself, “Why do you keep so much stuff?”
I never really took the time to dig deep and discard everything that I wasn’t using. Whenever I tried, I’d find a ton of reasons why I couldn’t. “Oh, if I lose 5 lbs I’ll wear this dress that I bought two years ago that I didn’t really like anyway.” “I’m going to need this paper clipper magnet holder one day so I should hold on to it.” “I’d be wasting money if I throw away something I bought that I really don’t need and can’t return cause the receipt’s missing.”
There were times, I’ll admit, where I did give stuff away, or my mom or sister would visit me and pull some outdated clothes from my closet – and that would be the only way to get rid of some of the useless stuff I had. But otherwise, this tension, this internal conflict between letting go and retaining remained. I realized that I felt weighed down by these things but could not articulate it clearly for myself at that time.
The worst – and maybe some of your readers can relate to this – was watching the pile of mail and papers get higher and higher and spread further and further into every empty space and clear surface that existed in my house. I absolutely hated all the paper piling up. Still do. If I could do away with snail mail or any mail (except handwritten letters or cards), I would!
4. What was the shift like, psychologically and physically, transitioning from the US to Italy?
Psychologically was easy – initially. My cousin and I had made plans to travel to Italy in the late part of summer in 2014. I had never been to Italy and initially had little interest in going but was open to the adventure. What happened next I still have trouble describing in words. But I had barely stepped off the plane and I just knew that I was home. That no matter where in the world I resided, this land was my land. And I accepted it (not having seen one thing about the country or knowing its socio-political history outside of what I learned in school). That was the easy part. Later it became a little more challenging as it took me two years to make it overseas. Two years of learning about myself and about what I really need and want for my life, of minimizing stress, maximizing joy and reconciling who I am with what I had been.
From a physical standpoint, it was not as hard as I thought it would be. Once I set the date, all I had to do was get rid of EVERYTHING that I knew I’d not need in the new chapter. I sold things, stored things, shipped things, gave away A TON of things. Even some of the things that I gave me joy. Letting go of those things with gratitude and knowing that they would go to someone who needed them more than I did in that moment made it much easier. Other than that, I trusted the Creator to help me find whatever I would need in Italy to be safe and sound. And the Creator and all the abundance in the universe showed up and has continued to show up for me in many ways.
5. Minimalism looks different for everyone. What does minimalism mean to you?
Minimalism is a guiding principle for me. It allows me to focus my attention on what matters and minimize the clutter in my mental and physical spaces. How does that look like in my life? Every space I inhabit is light on things (only statement pieces, please) and brings me joy. It also means that I strive to keep things simple. Society, whether via social media, peer groups, school, work, whatever it may be, bombards us with messages, ideas and things to keep us searching, acquiring and striving for the next thing, that thing that will make you better, smarter, prettier, richer, more lovable, whatever it may be, to the point where life gets complicated. Minimize the noise and you find that you already know what you want. Everything else, like Steve Job’s said, is secondary.
One fascinating manifestation of minimalism in my life came when I was looking for places to live overseas. In Italy, excessive space isn’t the norm per se. The apartments were small compared to those found in many US cities but they were perfect for me. Eventually I found a lovely spot with a sea view filled with colors I loved. I bought a printer, two Moroccan bowls for cereal (because cereal is still not a thing in Italy) and some incense and settled right in.
Living in a European country taught me that we (in the US) tend to live in excess with more space than one person or even family could ever need with a lot of stuff we don’t use or are no longer happy with. Now I am most comfortable in spaces that aren’t cluttered. My next adventure is to find a suitable place on the West Coast that I can thrive in when I’m not in southern Italy.
6. What benefits have you seen since starting your journey to minimalism?
Biggest benefit by far: the more stuff I got rid of the more weight I dropped. Strange but true. I lost 27 lbs without going to the gym, having a personal trainer, nothing. Now, I will say I had all those things at some point in my life and took lessons learned from those experiences to guide me even through today. Still, to this day, if someone is like “join a gym, try this new fitness app, or check out this new fitness class,” I will respectfully decline and let them know the biggest factor in maintaining a healthy body for me is joy. I look for activities in open spaces that bring me joy. Followed by drinking water and walking everyday. Oh yes, I walk everyday and stretch using Pilates and Iyengar yoga poses. But, I was walking every day before I started the minimalism process. So I know the catalyst is focusing on joy. That has made the difference and I know this because when life gets cluttered, complicated and dare I say stressful, that weight creeps right back. Joy is POWERFUL, I tell you!
I don’t want to prescribe minimalism as your weight loss plan. It’s not. I will tell you though, when you start thinking about what brings you joy and creating space for that, you find you don’t have room for the toxicities that affect your body, mind, and spirit.
7. I have found the creative mind often needs a bit of minimalism to thrive. How does it help your creative process, especially when writing about something as traumatic as the Biafra War?
Trauma fills space in a way that those who have never experienced trauma can’t imagine. Trauma brings with it little amulets, trinkets if you will, that set themselves up in the shelves of our minds. Beautiful and ghastly little things that occupy space to the point where we are suffocating every time we remember them. Sometimes, we even feel them in our body. For me, because my parents lived through the war and their parents lived through the war–that trauma is in my DNA. How they behaved and reacted to this critical moment in their lives is stored within my DNA. Doesn’t mean it always appears in my behavior but I have to regularly take stock of which trinkets have appeared in my mental space because of trauma, then remove them in gratitude and move forward. It helps me to be able to have a physical space that embodies the joy principle. Just knowing that I am surrounded by joy mentally and physically makes it easy to spot the things that don’t need to be in my space and remove them as needed.
8. What advice do you have for those who are just starting their journey towards a minimalist lifestyle? And any additional advice for those wishing to take their journey international?
First – read. There are lots of websites on being an expat and living abroad. And I’d definitely advise anyone and everyone to purchase Maria Kondo’s book “The Magical Art of Tidying Up”, read it and follow what she says — it will change your life. More than four years later and I’m still living by it and benefitting from it. And even if you don’t get the book, begin to ask yourself what brings you joy? Things in your life that do not bringing you joy, no matter what they are, no matter how big or how small, let them go. Whether it’s a religious belief that doesn’t serve you, a toxic relationship that is hurting you, a piece of clothing you keep because you want to lose weight and wear it but you become resentful when you see it, all of it – let it go. Not worth keeping joyless or joy-sapping items around. And, of course, check out fantastic blogs like “The Afro-Minimalist” and others to get tips on how to live a clutter-free existence on your terms. (Smile)
Secondly, take your time. This isn’t a sprint. It is a change – for some people a huge one. The initial decluttering work should be done pretty quickly. Within several weeks to a few months, faster if you have less stuff. But maintaining it is for life. Living this way is for life – your life.
Finally, take a short trip to the place you are thinking about and test it out. Analyze your finances. Decide if you are doing this move as something permanent, temporary or something in between. And don’t think you have to have a superstar Instagramable life wherever you are. Pick a place that brings you joy – the rest will come. You can live in places in Italy for less than you would in the US. You can even live in the US for a lot less and be happier than many of your peers. Be smart, do what you can do and always ask if where you are and what you are doing is bringing you joy. Trust yourself. You’ve got this.
8. Anything else you’d like to share?
What a wonderful experience to get to chat with THE Afro Minimalist about my journey. Thank you so much and if anyone has questions about being a minimalist or my minimalist journey, find me on Twitter @ChisaraAsomugha.
Thank you so much, Chisara!