Over the past two years, we’ve been downsizing. I find it uniquely satisfying to cull the things that never travel with us, so they can no longer anchor us down.
That said, it isn’t easy.
We’ve always known on some level that a person doesn’t own stuff. Stuff owns you. The more you have of it, the more of your life you’ve sold off for it, or will eventually to clean it, protect it, fix it, dust it, move it, store it or get rid of it. When you think of things in terms of the portion of your life it took to earn the money to pay for it, it changes your perspective on purchasing it in the first place.
So for the second time in two years, in spite of being self-proclaimed minimalists, we are downsizing again.
We thought we’d done it right the first time. But there were so many things we were not ready to let go of. Things we bought just to stage the house for selling. Things that wouldn’t fit in a one-bedroom apartment, which we always knew was a temporary solution. Assuming we were eventually going to buy a house in the Twin Cities, we paid for storage on a monthly basis for all those things you just know you’ll need when you have a house. Patio furniture. A mower. Gardening equipment. Antiques for those little corners of the house that seem too bare. Mementos still too connected to tissue of the soul to cut free. That old love letter from the elementary kid you lost touch with. The trophies you earned for a skill that’s long gone dusty and forgotten. A doll your grandmother gave you, just tall enough to walk with you when you were three feet tall.
They were precious when they went into storage. Things we thought we’d need. Now two years later, it all smells like the must of a dank basement. It all smells of memories and regret.
So now we set to pare it back one more time. This time, to the bone. When you have less to tie you down, you have more energy for adventure. For life to flow in like a wild river.
But there are too many dead people who haunt these things. People who’ve hewn them with their own hands. People who will never make or give us anything tangible again. And the first day we set to cull these mountains of now-moldy boxes, I freeze at the sight of them. I say to myself, my father is not in these things. And I cry a little but I know it’s true, so we set to work.
It turns out that offloading a bunch of stuff is harder than you might think. After storing it for nearly two years, these things that had so much value to us that we had to save them, suddenly, have all become worthless. Even a liability.
We start off trying to sell things online.
But, honestly, who are these people who are buying? They promise to show up, and never do. They commit to purchasing and then change plans. They ask for home delivery or a cross-town meet up for a $10 vase that isn’t worth the gas to drive 20 minutes and possibly get stood up by a buyer. So we quickly abandon the online marketplace of dusty things which must go.
We decide instead to gift these things, give them away to those in need, or as a last resort, throw them away.
Our stuff is buried in a massive storage facility in St. Paul with a man who buzzes people in to visit the chickenwire cages that house their things. It’s a veritable rabbit warren of these cages, on two floors with a rickety freight elevator and narrow staircases. Each burrow tells stories, but no one is there to listen.
The massive storehouse is cold as a morgue. We can see our breath when we first enter.
This is the purgatory of stuff.
Behind the chickenwire cages, a sad sort of wonderment exists. I see clothes piled loosely. Torn boxes thrown hastily inside. Worn teddy bears. Old lamps and headboards and couches. Things too precious to throw away, but not precious enough to live at home. I see Christmas decorations and silk flower arrangements, as if somehow they’ll come to life like the Velveteen Rabbit, become real, if only enough time passes in this space.
There is very little potential here.
This is the place where things go to die a slow death. Where the life erodes from them over the years. Some of it will be left there for good, buried there when the building is torn down in a year or so, then hauled off in dumpsters to that secret place where all of our wasted stuff goes.
The throw away part comes easily, at first. A lamp, broken in half from being moved multiple times. A red rake, bleached pale orange by the sun with several missing teeth. Old receipts and paperwork and clothes that are not fit to pass on. A snow globe that froze and leaked out its insides so the snow is glued to the floor of the globe; all of the magic drained out.
We pack the car and the dog is scared, shaking in the back seat among the broken fishing poles and skis with busted bindings. We throw several boxes worth of these once precious things away. They will go to a landfill, as if we are burying the part of our past that connects us to them. The nights I cross-country skied in the dark on virgin snow sparkling like the moon, when I lived in a city far away a lifetime ago. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep…
The things are gone, but the memories, thankfully, remain.
We return the following weekend to the mountain of stuff, with a moving truck as our partner in this pillaging of the past. This time, we load the boxes, maybe a hundred of them. We do not look inside.
Along the way, a plaque some friends bought for me when Dad died slips from grasp and shatters. And a part of me shatters with it. Dad is not in the things, I say to myself over and over again. Dad is not in these things.
We drive them to the apartment, and I move the dining table to make room. They stack to the ceiling and fill the apartment with the stench of unwanted guests who have overstayed.
Over the following days we go through each box systematically, one by one. Dividing items into piles: gift, giveaway, throw away and keep. The emotional toll is at times acute. We come across several things that make us cry, that prove to us it was worth it to spend so much to keep these things, even if only for this scrap of paper with Dad’s handwriting on it, or this note from someone long passed, that is still precious.
Keep nothing that isn’t useful, beautiful or meaningful. That is my mantra.
We tear photos from their frames. We unpack stuff that’s moved with us time and again. The Atari 2600 and its games, which we will keep. The couch pillows and rusty tools and CDs and décor. The Split Rock Lighthouse figurines we once collected to remind us of our honeymoon; they will go. And just like that we are no longer collectors of anything but reminiscences. In time, we whittle the pile down and divide it into more piles which slowly disappear.
Just before bed after a long day of sorting I realize my mother-in-law’s silver jewelry box is missing. And I ask about it. It’s been thrown away, it was broken. And all of a sudden I’m overwhelmed by a sense of loss. I never knew her, she was gone a decade before I met my husband-to-be, but I’d had this heart-shaped memorial. It is at the base of the kitchen trash so I dig it out and wash it and scrub it shiny with an old toothbrush and toothpaste, making the kitchen smell like mint for a moment, instead of memories. It will stay.
We rent a moving truck again the following weekend for the furniture in storage. The porch swing I ordered that we never used. The antique commode I negotiated the price for, which had eight layers of paint on it. Now refinished, but yet to be varnished, it will go to live in someone else’s home. The bistro set, once so cute, now stained in storage and in need of TLC. It can be made beautiful and useful once again, but that task will fall to someone else. Most of it goes to charities which collect the castoffs from our lives and turn them into good. The patio set goes to an acquaintance. Some furniture comes back to the apartment with us, like hungover hitchhikers of questionable motives. They have no intrinsic value, yet with scant material value they must be sold or given away.
What is it about things that keeps us coming back for more? What is it about owning that makes us feel as if we are living our best life? We build sheds and garages and pay monthly fees for boxes to store our boxes in. In all the places I’ve traveled, this seems a uniquely American affliction.
In the end, it cost us about two grand to keep these things in storage and subsequently get rid of them.
What do we get in return? The American Dream? Happiness? Is that what this is?
When we are done downsizing, we still won’t be free. We’ll just have less. Or less will have us. And for now, until all of the value of the precious things is wrung from them, that is enough.
Charish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to her clients.
Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.