The caddisfly is one of those creatures with two distinct parts to its life. The adult is terrestrial, but the larvae are aquatic. In the water, these larvae get busy making themselves cases in which to pupate, out of whatever gritty little bits and pieces come to hand on the wetlands floor, wrapped up and bound together with silk.
So if (as Mrs Coleman did) you house caddisfly larvae in an aquarium in your biology lab, and provide them with a liberal sprinkling of interesting and colourful stone grit (turquoise, carnelian, anything pretty or sparkly), the caddisfly will go to work on its architectural project and provide itself with a coat of many colours as good as anything Joseph ever wore.
Then, is the case part of the caddisfly? Or is the caddisfly merely inside the case? Who is a caddisfly really?
Something similar applies to hermit crabs. They seek out shells in which to shelter — and is the shell part of the crab or a separate thing?
What is mine and what is me and where is the boundary line?
If you see me, I will be dressed (I hope).
You can dress an altar — another term for the same thing is "adorn" the altar.
We see one another adorned. When you see me, you see my choices, my opinion, my evaluation, of myself and of my situation.
I used to have different outfits for different occasions — to fulfil other people's expectations and preferences. I wore different clothes for home and for church, for visiting my mother or for conducting worship. I became unsure who I was — less myself and more them, maybe. I lost something of my inner self into the circumstance, as I took on who they were — not like a caddisfly, not like a hermit crab; like a chameleon.
I thought about it hard. If I own almost nothing, I am left alone with myself; and in that solitude I encounter God (and demons, like Jesus in the desert). I wanted that, and I wanted the sense of freedom and flexibility, of slipping through the world like a mouse through grass, leaving nothing, not even a footprint, behind. But at the same time, I didn't want to give offence. And sometimes the way I dress has given offence; the offended have told me so. I didn't want to attract attention to myself. I wanted, as Sally Wainwright said of the Brontës, "to walk invisible".
I realised dark clothing would be the way to go. Even the contours of one's body blur in the shadows of dark. Dark clothing does not call the attention of other people. It works for formal wear. It doesn't show stains (much). So that's what I chose. It allowed me to slip in and out of as many contexts as I wanted without causing offence, drawing attention or increasing the number of clothes I had.
I realise minimalism is about more than clothes, but mine isn't, because I no longer have very much else of my very own. A few books and just a tiny few personal treasures. Anything else I use is shared with other people and co-owned.
I find that ownership extends and complicates, and to some extent confuses, one's sense of self. A person comes to self-definition through any number of realities about which one can say "my" — my job, my home, my family, my heritage, my culture, my personal style, my achievements, my education, my personal history, my marriage, my status, my investments.
If minimalism is embraced not as a style but as a slow divestment of all that, oneself becomes slowly more apparent. I have no job and consequently no status, I live in someone else's home, my achievements ran into the dust and evaporated. I have one investment, a rental cottage that supplies my income; and I find that if there's just one thing, it has its own clarity distinct from oneself. If you see what I mean. I am not likely to define myself as "a landlord" by virtue of owning one small cottage I let out, am I? It's just that thing, its own self, separate from me — and isn't even my own but co-owned; I'm just allowed to use the money to live on (and maintain the house itself, of course; I have to share the income with the house, as well as to pay my own rent, etc).
As for my education, that didn't really stick. My inner being is sufficiently anarchic that I passed unscathed through the entire process of education, emerging knowing very little more than I knew when I entered it.
My culture, my heritage, is an odd rag-bag of upward mobility and social pretension. I come from servants and labourers who worked hard and made good and acquired airs and thought more of themselves as a result. I'm not sure what I am there — and in any case writers, like artists, sit in the margins of social culture, somewhat separate from it.
Then there's personal history. I've spent two or three years detoxifying my body of that — its traumas and disappointments. Have you read Carlos Castañeda's books about Don Juan? What he says about erasing personal history? I find it a really intriguing thought.
In Journey to Ixtian, he says this:
"I have no routines or personal history. One day I found out that they were no longer necessary for me and, like drinking, I dropped them. One must have the desire to drop them and then one must proceed harmoniously to chop them off, little by little. If you have no personal history, no explanations are needed; nobody is angry or disillusioned with your acts. And above all no one pins you down with their thoughts. It is best to erase all personal history because that makes us free from the encumbering thoughts of other people. I have, little by little, created a fog around me and my life. And now nobody knows for sure who I am or what I do. Not even I. How can I know who I am, when I am all this?"
Curiously, I find that slowly leaving behind my personal history, rendering it unnecessary, doesn't (for me) create fog but clarity. The definitions imposed upon me by other people's choices and decisions and the things that happened to me as a result — including the schools they sent me to, the jobs they gave me, the certifications and statuses they bestowed on me, the opinions they expressed about me — swirled like a dust storm around me. I find that if you walk quietly away, and keep on walking, and refuse what they give you and pin onto you, then gradually you come clear, are born again. Then there is just you and God and in that company you know who you are.
You do still have to get dressed in the morning, because you are a being in the world and besides you'd get cold or sunburnt if you didn't. But, espousing minimalism, at least you don't get dressed into a persona (my preaching outfit, my formalwear, my sportswear, my leisure gear, my gardening clothes); you just put on your clothes and there you are.
What I want, when you meet me, is that you will find yourself with a simple being, so that it will almost feel as though you are alone. You will know who you are because you are with me. And if you have undertaken a similar journey, I will know who I am because I am with you. And this ontological clarity comes from the simplicity of living without defence or pretence in the presence of God, like Jesus in the desert. It is peace, it is shalom. The details of circumstance become immaterial, like the petals of cherry blossom shaken free from the tree in the wind.
That's what I want. That's where I'm headed.
Like the thing it says about seeing in the first letter of John.
If we take everything out of the way, perhaps we shall really see one another. What do you think?