I’m sometimes convinced my purse is cursed. It swallows the things I want to find (it has happened on more than one occasion that I’ve had to empty out the entire contents in order to lay hands on the cell phone that has eluded me through three thorough rummaging-searches) and mysteriously fills with things I don’t need to find.
Seriously. Why did I end up toting Pizza Hut packets of parmesan, plastic Communion cup, cinnamon-scented pinecone, tire pressure gauge, metallic Sharpie markers, a pair of chopsticks, completed crosswords, a fishing fly in a prescription bottle… Okay, not all of these things at one time, but those are actual examples of things my purse regurgitates when I only want my phone! The lesson here is that if I have space, I WILL fill it—whether that space be in a purse or in a home.
If I live in a house, the STUFF I own will inevitably expand to fit the space. (I’m certain this happens without any help from me— surely I’ve played no part in accumulating said stuff, ahem…) If I have an attic or shed or garage or storage space, that stuff-expansion will continue till all the corners are filled in. Picture a marshmallow swelling in the microwave–that’s the sort of bloat we’re talking about.
I’ve moved eight times in the last eight years, each time with enough boxes to build a fortress. Each time packing, hauling, and unpacking all that Stuff. I would intend to sort and dispose, but I’d cave to the “Keep-its,” afraid to get rid of things I might want or “need,” hesitant to let go of sentimental items or gifts… Every time I packed more stuff than the previous time, instead of less.
The stuff I owned was owning me right back.
I suppose I could take comfort in the fact that this is a thoroughly American dilemma; it shouldn’t shock anyone to hear that Americans invented the self storage facility, an industry that Slate magazine called “a surprisingly fertile cultural indicator.”
What’s the most ubiquitous business in America? I would have answered Starbucks, but the New York Times reported this country supports seven times as many storage facilities as Starbucks stores, with customers’ “third-most-popular use” admitted to be “storing items that they ‘no longer need or want.'”
The humorous ads for LetGo.com might be puzzling to people in other countries (the continent of Europe apparently has about 1 storage facility for every 25 in the U.S.) but we here in America understand the underlying truth that makes them funny: people here DON’T let go of their stuff…
I may not have been paying out extra monthly money to keep the stuff I didn’t want to keep, but I was still dutifully packing and moving all of it at least once a year.
This February I married Jon and we moved into a fifth wheel RV. It’s good-sized for an RV, 40 feet long with a toy-hauler “garage” section for the motorcycle and some storage. Still, we’re talking something like 250 square feet of living space and another 100 for the garage. Big for an RV, yes, but tiny-house-small compared to most American dwellings.
I was watching a marathon of “Tiny-House Hunters” the other day in the RV park-office where I work (or where I work in busier months, anyway—this time of year it may not qualify as “working”)… I’m amused by the whole “tiny house” fad, and even more amused by the fact that the people who enjoy this show are some of the same who seemed aghast that we would consider moving into an RV. The home-buyers in these episodes riff on common themes: simplicity, sustainability, mobility & flexibility, financial freedom, minimalism…
So I picked up a word that’s new to me: Minimalist. It’s fairly self-explanatory, but I hadn’t heard it (or hadn’t heard it capitalized) until an episode in which a buyer repeatedly used the word to reassure himself about tiny-house squeezes. When his pragmatic sister challenged him with almost any question (“Where will you put furniture?“) he would automatically respond, “That’s okay; I’m a Minimalist.”
Another episode’s couple reported that they had taken the “Minimalist Challenge” before deciding on tiny-house living. The 30-day Challenge calls for disposal of one possession on the first day, two on the second, and so on until the player/experimenter/prospective-Minimalist has either jettisoned 465 items or decided that Minimalism doesn’t suit.
Apparently I qualify as a Minimalist. I spent most of January sorting and winnowing, taking daily carloads to Goodwill and watching with satisfaction as my furniture walked out the door, piece by piece, on the shoulders of Craigslist buyers. By the time my mother arrived in town for the wedding, my three-bedroom apartment was echoing and empty, save for a small stack of boxes and luggage in the living room. “You must have some serious storage,” she commented. I didn’t correct her assumption at the time, but in truth, everything I own is now in this fifth wheel.
Also truthfully, to a person who has long dreamed of living aboard a sailboat, this roomy rec-vehicle didn’t seem squeezed or unfeasible at all. Like a sailboat, it makes the most use of every space, tucking storage areas under the bed and in lofts by the ceiling… Like a sailboat, cabinets are built to keep objects from achieving flight when the home is in motion. Like a sailboat, the shower sports a
hatch skylight and the toilet sports a flush-pedal and the tanks have to be monitored and maintained… It’s all familiar enough to be comforting, even exciting.
And for a Gypsyish soul like myself, the wheels beneath have as much appeal as the compact home itself. I have sat in the park office and watched my house roll by, knowing that HOME will be somewhere other than where I left it. And guess what? I didn’t have to pack a single box! (I will admit, though, that it felt odd to affix a license plate to my house!)
Gypsy-mobility is its own topic, about which I could write volumes (and probably will), but for now let me just say that my life is open for Experiences. When my counselor asked me recently what I want out of Life, “Experience” was the word that flew out of my mouth.
“Living Large” is not my aspiration; my greatest riches are in my mind. The things that fill pages in the box of journals stored in the RV’s extra bunk, or the pages of this blog. These are riches no one can strip from me—they won’t go into foreclosure or get repossessed or have a tax lien put on them. I may be an “anti-packrat,” but I do collect one thing: Memories. And fortunately, memories don’t require storage space—not even in the form of mementos or souvenirs.
The idea of minimalist living seems to appeal to many people on the surface—just look at the popularity of magazines like “Real Simple,” which hawks facsimiles of Streamlining & Simplicity with exorbitant price tags! …but minimalism does require some Letting Go. Actually, a lot of it.
I had a conversation in the park office the other day with another full-time RV-er whose possessions are piled up in storage units, and who expressed curiosity about how I had managed to minimize my own Stuff enough to eliminate the need for storage. Like most Momentous Things, it’s deceptively simple.
Um, I got rid of the Stuff.
I suppose a person (if she does want to minimize) has to consider the various reasons why she has been keeping the Stuff she has. Does she use it or wear it regularly? Is it Important to her for some reason or another? Does she feel “guilted” into hanging on to it? Does she love it?
Things in the “use-it-regularly” category I kept. You might be surprised what a small pile that is, compared to the sum total of the Stuff you own!
“Important” things—well, that can be subjective. I kept the little fire-proof safe with birth certificates, passports, and the like. I kept a large-ish box containing four decades’ worth of journals. I kept a smallish box of mementos: a handful of my kids’ baby-things, my own baby-blanket, some other items I feel strongly about… But honestly, the majority of things I’d been saving for “sentimental” reasons could fulfill their purpose in a photograph as well as in person. I took pictures, and I let things go.
Things I would have felt guilty about getting rid of, I offered to the other people who might feel strongly about them. I gave things to my children, who live elsewhere; I took family-furniture to my parents; I handed family genealogy records to my sister-the-historian. And some things I really didn’t need. The current FaceBook comments from high school classmates mean more to me than what they wrote in my yearbooks a quarter-century ago. I dismantled bulky photo albums and simply kept the pictures.
Living a mere mile from the Oregon Trail, I feel a strong affinity for its travelers of long ago: people who embarked on a new life with everything they owned stowed in a very small, mobile space. The trail is ahead of me—we’ll see where it leads.
(If you haven’t heard the song, I recommend spending the three minutes—just click below.) :)