In 2006, my mom died rather unexpectedly. I was 19, and her parents and my dad had all passed away in the five years prior.
As an only child saddled with the responsibility of going through three generations of “stuff” — mine, my parents’ and my grandparents’ — I don’t think I can ever fully articulate just how much that process changed my relationship to the objects in my life.
But, now that I’m in another period of my life where I’m downsizing quite a bit, and thinking a lot about what the stuff in my life means to me, I thought I would at least try.
After the funeral, I went back to school, packed my things, and moved out. As I walked out of my residence hall for the last time that academic year, I swore that I would get through everything that needed to be done before the end of the summer.
Come hell or high water, I knew I would return to Virginia Tech and start art school in the fall. I had just decided to change my major over spring break, and I was too determined and excited to let this derail my plans.
Then reality set in. When I got “home,” I had this mess to greet me.
It was up to me, and me alone, to put my hands on every object in this four bedroom, three bathroom house, and draw my own conclusions about the sentimental and monetary value of each one. Do I keep this? Do I have space for it? Do I try to sell this? Do I throw it out?
How in the hell do I even throw out this much stuff?
Thankfully, I’d picked up a copy of “Getting Things Done” earlier that year, with the hopes of using it to become more productive at school, after listening to a podcast where Merlin Mann interviewed author David Allen. It's a good thing I lucked into that, because without a “GTD” approach to all of the stuff in the house, I don’t know how I ever would have gotten through it all, even working on it as many as twelve hours a day at times.
Over the course of the next three months, I made thousands of decisions about things like wooden spoons, tennis rackets, cars, bottles of used oil, hundreds of spices, and so on. A lot of it went out the door in an estate sale. Most of the rest went into a dumpster. Very few things in the house had any real value or meaning to me.
Even many of the things that did — my childhood bed frame (which had also been my mom’s), my dad’s dresser — couldn’t be kept. The house had to be empty when I left so it could be sold while I was at school, six hours away.
I was essentially homeless, with nowhere to go besides my dorm room at Virginia Tech. I had no idea where I’d end up after the year ended, but I knew that until then, just about everything I owned needed to fit into that room. I took some clothes, some personal belongings, family photos, cookbooks that belonged to my mom, and a few boxes of other miscellaneous things that belonged to my family and held some special meaning to me. That’s about it.
My life had been reduced to next to nothing. But after the experience of walking into a house full of objects, most of which had no value to me, and being forced to “process” them one at a time, that brought with it a new but very welcome feeling.
The heaviness of everything up to that point actually made my newfound lightness feel invigorating.
At different times in my life since then, it’s made sense for me to put down roots and try to make a space for myself that feels like “home,” but so far it’s never really worked out the way I hoped it would.
A few times since then, as I've sold things, thrown things out, packed things away, I've returned to this place of questioning the weight of all of the “stuff” in my life, and how the things I own do or don't represent the things that I care about.
About six months ago, I had to walk away from a business I’d poured myself into for three years, a home in the city I thought I’d live in for the rest of my life, and a relationship that had left me feeling exhausted, depressed, and completely broken.
But before I could put that chapter of my life behind me, I once again had to touch each and every object that had been accumulated over the last several years, and make a decision about each and every one.
Thankfully, this time around I had help from a friend with all of the physical labor of moving, selling, or donating all of this "stuff," but the mental and emotional heavy lifting was my responsibility alone.
Parkinson’s Law famously stated that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion,” and I think that with a few edits, it’s an accurate statement about the tendency of stuff to take up my space and my time, too:
“Stuff expands to fill the space I leave open for it to occupy, and the time I leave open for it to distract me.”
I moved to Norfolk, Virginia with about four truckloads of “stuff” that I thought I might want or need as I started my life over, but right away, I felt the weight of even the few things that I kept. After several passes at the things that had come with me, I was able to reduce all of it from fifteen or twenty boxes, to just a handful.
Most of those will go into storage somewhere safe until it makes sense for me to try to put down some roots again. Until such a time comes, I am down to 100 items or less. I'll put up a list soon, so you can see just how serious I am about that.
After having a studio space to work out of for the last three years, I thought it might be difficult to not have that, but I found right away that a smaller space didn't bother me at all. Smallness was still like second-nature, ever after all of those years of accumulating things to make a home.
Eventually, I started to play with the space: I marked off and measured the square footage of the space I actually use over the course of a day in the house I've been living in, and I challenged myself to reduce my footprint as much as possible.
Right now, including my clothes, writing and drawing supplies, computer, phone, typewriter, food, some essential cooking implements, and a few other things, I am only taking up a couple hundred square feet. There's plenty more space available to me, but I have tried to make the space I use as compact as possible. For example, I currently only use about 49 square feet of my bedroom, which is approximately a fourth of the total area. About 90% of the time I spend at home fits into that amount of space just fine.
Most of my life revolves around making things, not having things: writing, typing, drawing, photographing, conversing. It makes a lot of sense for me to surround myself with just the things that I need to pursue those interests.
If the things in my life revolve around those interests, then it will be easier for my life to revolve around those interests, and the easier it will be for me to go wherever those interests lead me.