The washer and dryer went to a family that needed them. The leaky rowboat went to my sister-in-law. The coffee pot and colander went to my nephew’s wife. Two carloads, mostly kitchen supplies, went to my youngest daughter. Two pick-up loads went to the consignment store. My computer monitor went to my neighbor, in her 80s, who was straining to read on her too-small screen. A box spring, dilapidated chair, and the contents of the spice cupboard went to the fire. Several hundred pounds of trash went to the dump.
It’s an estimate, when I say I have gotten rid of 95% of my possessions. I don’t know how many things I owned at the peak, and I am not yet at the point where I can tell you how many items I still have. But the percentage is a fair guess, having sifted through houses and garages filled with the trappings of a life. Making things disappear isn’t easy, especially when they are heavy, like the riding lawn mower missing a battery, or the piano still hiding out in the shed. It has taken years.
Now, down to 192 cubic feet of storage, plus a few items stored by friends or family, a corner of a garage, and what fits in my vehicle, I am listening to the conversation taking place about stuff, and it is loud. Articles and research studies suggest the majority of people would like to have less things. Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, a book about an anthropological study of modern American life, reports stress levels spiking when women view the family’s possessions, described by the authors as “the mountain of stuff.” More than half of garages are too full to hold a car.
My friends who have overcome or sufficiently organized their own things sometimes find themselves overwhelmed by the households of others—family members who have died or have become unable to live in possession-filled houses. People spend months, and sometimes years, trying to sort junk from family heirlooms, and more families than I can count have experienced significant rifts over disagreements about how the objects left behind by the deceased should be dealt with. Determining how to dispose of things properly can be difficult. Is this object of value? How much of my own time and energy will it cost me to have it appraised, find a buyer, and sell it? Is it somehow irresponsible to let it go, without investing that time and energy?
Complicating matters further is the issue of emotional or sentimental attachment. Do I keep this item that meant so much to my deceased relative, simply because it did? What if it is a gun, and I don’t hunt, and I don’t even want to live in a house with guns? Those questions kept my dad’s shotguns stored in my closet for more than a decade. I understand emotional attachment. The majority of items in my 192 cubic foot storage space are there for that reason alone.
So here I am, without most of the items my same-age peers have. No physical residence, no bicycle, no couch or television. However, there is plenty I am still carrying, including a smart phone, a computer, and several pairs of boots—things I am not at the moment considering giving up. Traveling with four hula hoops, it is hard to see myself as perfectly streamlined.
So what do I know at this point? With only one notable exception, the less I have, the happier I am. (Years ago I gave some baby blankets to Goodwill, and freaked out afterward. The lovely lady in the sorting room gave them back to me, crisis averted.) Baby blankets aside, I don’t think I have missed any physical object that I have let go. I get excited when I realize there is something I was holding onto that I can now release—most recently my fancy printer/fax/scanner/copier taking up way too much room in my little storage unit. It has found a new home and as soon as I am back in the city where it is stored, it’ll go.
Many of the items I have let go of were sold. I hired a local woman to sell some jewelry on ebay, sold other items through postings on Facebook, and offered deals to my friends. Sometimes I took less than what they were offering to me, and eventually I began to give items away, whenever it seemed reasonable to do so. Would I take payments? Sure. Can they pick it up today? You bet. I became better and better at releasing my latch on items, but I sure didn’t start out that way.
Because I have a history of being painstakingly slow about getting rid of items, I am now very cautious about acquiring anything. Months of research often precedes a purchase. Sometimes I can’t seem to allow myself to buy something until I have made more progress on thinning out the belongings I no longer use. Just yesterday, badly in need of a replacement phone, I gazed into the eyes of the very patient Verizon salesperson and said “I’m stuck.” There was no doubt I needed a phone, and could afford one, and my contract was up, but it was still ridiculously difficult for me to buy one.
I sometimes worry about not having items to pass down to people in my life, the way my grandmother gave me a cedar chest, for example. For the many years I had it, I remembered it was hers, and I felt connected to her through it. Don’t I want my own grandkids to have those kinds of mementos, well-loved objects handed down through generations? Of course I do. (For those of you worried that I cast off such an item, it went into the hands of my youngest daughter who had been coveting it for some time.)
The cedar chest belonged to my grandmother. It strikes me that belonging might be connected to belongings. I belong to this family. I can show you that I do through my belongings. I have belonged to various groups through our mutual possessions, as well. I loved buying kayak polo equipment with my team mates. They had kayaks, I had a kayak. They had helmets, I had a helmet. I was part of this group.
It surprises me that I still get an urge to buy. Because I am new at this, I forget for a few minutes at a time that I don’t have a household. No matter how functional or well-designed that kitchen gadget is, I still don’t have a kitchen. But coveting can well up in me, sometimes a result of advertising, sometimes because I see an object that brings up my desire. Often they are things I only see in passing, and they are likely to be alternative forms of shelter—a tree house, an Airstream trailer, a Tumbleweed brand tiny house. Yurts and tipis and boy-scout style tents can trigger it, as well.
I’ve been reading portions of a book about Buddhist psychology by Jack Kornfield, titled The Wise Heart. I’ve been focusing on a chapter about addiction, craving, and grasping, where he states, “It is revolutionary to step out of the thrall of desire.” I am not sure what he means. But I know that as I take my tiny steps away from being an owner of things, I feel myself on shaky ground.
Sometimes I don’t know what to say in conversations anymore, for example. The simplest questions bring up a long, drawn out “uh” from me. Questions like, where do you live? Where is your home base? Recently a friend expressed interest in my lifestyle changes, asked many questions, and then said I would probably enjoy a subscription to a magazine called Practical Sailor. And maybe I would. Except I spent the last six months trying to cancel every shred of paper mail I receive. (Yes, they do have a digital version, but I am trying to simplify my digital life, as well.)
One of the fundamental skills that people need to acquire in order to overcome addiction is the ability to tolerate a desire without relinquishing to it. Especially in early recovery, the craving for the drug or alcohol or other object of addiction is crushing. Learning you can tolerate more discomfort than you thought you could is revolutionary in sobriety, in that it revolutionizes an addict’s ability to choose differently. So, how can I revolutionize my relationship to possessions, and to the continual rising up of desire?
When it comes to physical items, I am letting myself long for things. I am trying to notice when I want something. I am watching to see if the want returns, and then if it sustains itself. I am leaning in to listen closely to our ongoing conversation about personal effects. I am letting myself feel a little less like I belong, and to see how much of that is tied to belongings. And to whatever extent possible, for awhile, I am going to let myself break the word down even further. If I want something, if I really, really want something, sometimes I am going to practice just feeling that feeling. Being the longing. Be longing, and try to see what might be tied up inside of that.