Each month, we offer up a story from our village of creative-minded folks that offers inspiration, influence, and opportunity. This month, we're looking at STUFF. How does it affect our lives? Why do we carry so much of it with us year to year? Why is it so hard to let go? And, we ask you to consider how the space around you influences mood, activities, happiness, and your joy. Clutter vs. order vs. chaos vs. space. Guest blogger Damion Moyer takes us on a voyage through his own family's "Adventures in Downsizing."
The house was perfect for us at the time… Our daughter had her own bedroom, we had another bedroom for running our small business, and a 3rd for us. It also offered plenty of indoor space for our 5 cats, and lots of storage for our combined households.
Over time, however, an interesting phenomenon began to take place. Slowly but surely, all the reasons for which we needed the space began to go away. Cats died or ran away, the daughter moved out to start her adult life, the business sold. It makes perfect sense, to my mind, that we’d have begun to find ourselves with a lot of extra space. But that’s not how things worked out. The old adage of Nature abhorring a vacuum was never more true. For each thing that left, a couple more things would creep in to take its place. It wasn’t long before we started thinking that maybe our 1700 sq. ft. townhouse was too small, that maybe we needed to start thinking about looking for a bigger house.
It was time to start thinking seriously about what the next 5-10 years were going to look like. Through a lot of honest, open conversation, and a lot of hard work with our mentor and coach, we learned a couple of things about ourselves. We learned that we really wanted to have ‘some land’ and a really spectacular house. We also learned that, since neither of us had really travelled much, we wanted to spend some time on the road, seeing what this country is really all about. It occurred to us that, in the absence of unlimited budget, these two goals were mutually exclusive. Having some land and a spectacular house means being rooted somewhere, committed to tending to one’s land and animals, to keeping the house in good repair.
Living on the road requires absolute flexibility; a commitment to non-commitment, if you will. It was clear that, in order to do both, we’d have to choose one first and then the other. Once rooted somewhere, we aren’t the kind of people that would have an easy time uprooting, so it was determined that we would travel first…. buy and renovate an old fifth-wheel, get a reliable and sturdy pickup truck, and hit the road! We were totally stoked… until we looked around our house, and our lives, and began to come to grips with the reality of what we’d just signed ourselves up for.
The amount of stuff we’d acquired was an obvious problem, antithetical to being able to travel, but there was a bigger, more fundamental issue at play here as well. The real underlying issue was not just the stuff itself, but the significance we’d attached to acquiring and owning that stuff. Somewhere along the way, we got it in our heads that all our stuff was somehow ‘important’. Admittedly, this was a bigger issue for me than for Diana, but it affected us both. I’d grown up in a cluttered household, I’d spent many years as a single adult with nobody to answer to regarding my clutter, and that clutter was powerful source of comfort and familiarity for me. This was going to be a serious challenge, but for the first time in my life, it was more important to me to move forward than it was to keep my stuff.
After more of the aforementioned honest, open conversation, we determined that it would be unrealistic for us to go from our big house to a trailer in a single step, so we decided on a more phased approach. Step 1 would consist of reducing our belongings by at least ⅓, selling the house, and moving into an apartment no bigger than 1000 sq ft. Selling the house and finding an apartment were easy enough, but before they could happen, I had to get rid of at least ⅓ of my stuff (and preferably more).
There are as many different ways to go about downsizing as there are people who have done it, but here’s what worked for me. I gave myself blanket permission to keep anything I wanted, so long as I made a conscious, intentional choice to do so. The key word here, however, was ‘choice’. In order to make that choice, I had to pick up and hold every single thing I owned, and make a conscious, intentional choice about whether or not to keep that item. I also enrolled Diana in my process, such that she was not allowed to make judgments regarding my decisions. So long as I was on track to reduce by ⅓, the choice was mine to make.
That freedom made all the difference for me. By having the freedom to choose however I wished, I found that I was able to have productive, honest, and judgment-free dialog with myself about each item that I touched. When was the last time I touched this? Why has it been so long? How would I feel if I could never touch it again? Is this object replaceable? Do I truly want this, or do I merely like it? Ultimately, following this process removed the significance from the conversation, and while such conversations can never truly be objective, I was able to recognize, honor, and look beyond the emotions that I experienced. Much like a parent helps a child to grow, I was able to help myself come to a place where I could feel the attachment to a thing, and let it go anyway.
It took several months, but by the time we were ready to move, we had reduced our ‘stuff footprint’ by about half. We raised a few thousand dollars by selling stuff that was worth selling, we burned a couple tanks of gasoline taking uncounted carloads of stuff to Goodwill and various other local charities, and we had a great time giving stuff away to our friends.
We’ve successfully sold our home and our now living in a small but lovely 1 br. apartment, and thanks largely to our downsizing efforts, when I come home from work at night, I don’t see my stuff. I see my home, and it feels lighter and more welcoming than I ever thought possible.
We still haunt vintage shops, and we still bring home the occasional trinket, but there’s a difference now in how we go about doing it. Before we began this process, it was reflexive and automatic. Now, it’s conscious and intentional. When we bring something home, it’s because we thought about it and made a deliberate decision to bring that thing home. Also, as a general rule, we enforce a ‘no gain’ policy. Every item that comes in must be balanced by an item leaving.
It’s going to be a couple of years yet before we’re ready to take the plunge and go completely mobile, but in the meantime, we’ve discovered a few remarkable things:
- Lesson 1) Life is a limited resource. The more of it that you devote to stuff, the less of it you have available for actual living. Conversely, the less your life is about ‘stuff’, the more of your life is available for other, more meaningful pursuits
- Lesson 2) Learning lesson 1 does not keep one from wanting new stuff, but keeping it in mind does make it a lot easier to appreciate something without needing to bring it home with you.
- Lesson 3) There’s nothing wrong with stuff. It’s totally ok to have as much stuff as you want. The danger is when acquiring stuff becomes unconscious and automatic. That’s when it starts needlessly using up your life.
- Lesson 4) 95% or more of our stuff was absolutely replaceable, so getting rid of it was practically risk free.
I think that one of the things that surprised us most about the process was the responses we heard from others. By far, the most frequent response was along the lines of, “I’m so envious of your ability to do this. I tried it and failed… I just can’t.”.
Are you struggling with downsizing?
What is the stumbling block for you?
Is that a real issue, or one you’re making up to keep yourself from the process? How can you remove judgment from the situation?
How can you find a way to honor the emotions that you’re feeling and do it anyway? How can you create a situation wherein, as my wife likes to say, everything is sacred but nothing is significant? I think you’ll find that judgment and significance lie at the heart of most stumbling blocks in life, and downsizing is no different.
We went from having separate rooms for a kitchen, dining room, and living room, to a single, multi-purpose flex space.
Our view is… amazing. It’s astounding to think that we were actually starting to wonder if our prior home was too small!!
As a white, 40-something male with a middle-management position, and adult daughter, a second marriage, and a desire to own a sports car, Damion’s greatest challenge lies in not being a parody of himself. He lives in Portland, OR, and together with his wife, Diana, is preparing to spend a few years living on the road, exploring all that this country has to offer, while preaching the gospel of pre-prohibition cocktails and locally produced food. He blogs about Crohn’s disease and food issues at http://mycrankygut.com.