In less than 90 days, Karen and I will get in our car and drive out of Toronto. It’ll mark the beginning of a new chapter in our life. Again.
Packed in our car will be all the things we own. Our material footprint will have shrunk down to this: two large backpacks, a bag of camping gear, a small backpack of camera and computer equipment, and a couple of plastic storage boxes.
This has been a decade-long whittling away of stuff. We didn’t work hard to make this happen. It wasn’t a feat of discipline. It isn’t for political reasons, or anything like that. It just happened naturally. Each time we packed up our stuff to head off on a long trip, the pile we left stored away behind us got smaller. In 2007, as we prepared for our first major sabbatical, we didn’t want to spend a fortune on storage, so we got rid of everything we didn’t consider essential to restarting a life when we returned. By 2011, as we got ready to head off on a two-year trip, our pile was even smaller. We fit everything we thought we wanted to keep in a small storage pod.
This time is different. If you saw our last post, you know we’re about to embark on an experiment; a reorientation of our lives. At the end of June we’re leaving our jobs and our life in Toronto, and we’re going to see if it’s possible to orbit our life around four things that matter most to us: family, travel, meditation, and service, all the while supporting ourselves on shorter work contracts rather than full-time, structured jobs.
In order to make this work, we can’t be storing a lot of stuff. You know the stuff we’re talking about, all the crap one accumulates. Like barnacles on the hull of a ship, every year there’s more of it. As it grows, it also adds a lot of drag. It keeps us chained to jobs we may not like, to mortgages we didn’t really want.
Drive through the ring of suburban housing outside of Toronto and you see the insanity. Among every new subdivision, a self-storage business also gets built. Like payday loan stores and pawnshops in neighbourhoods with concentrated poverty, self-storage businesses pop up in the suburbs, for people who need more space for their piles of stuff.
In the process of clearing out our own stuff, we realized something. We accumulate things in part because we see security in this. We also see accumulated wealth in our things. We remember paying $600 for that Vitamix blender we bought three years ago. Looking at it today, we still see $600, even though by now it’s just a fancy used blender.
Same goes for a leather briefcase I bought in 2010. The other leather briefcase I bought a couple of years before that. My collection of Akira Kurosawa DVDs – all Criterion editions, of course. They’ve been in a box unwatched since at least 2011. Before that they’d sat on a closet shelf since 2007. Before that they lived on bookshelves in Vancouver and Victoria. Loved, but not watched.
Then there are the memories. We associate memories with our stuff and those memories inform the stories we tell about ourselves. The whimsical tree ornament my cousin Shannon made for me as a Christmas present years ago, one among many hand-made gifts she gave out each year at our family gatherings.
The ‘Big Apple’ Christmas decoration Karen brought back from Manhattan in 2002. Meditation shawls and a Buddha we bought in Dharamsala in 2007. A tie I bought in Victoria after the 2005 provincial election – more retail therapy than celebration. A clay pot I’ve used for garlic since 1988 and a metal spatula I took from my parents’ house in 1989. It came into the family in the early ‘70s. Now it contains the memories of fifteen different homes spanning four decades. It’s like an heirloom spatula.
“they don’t make ‘em like this anymore”
So now what? It’s hard to justify paying $250 plus dollars a month to rent space to store stuff we may or may not ever need, like an old tie or movies. Of course we’re also getting rid of our furniture too. But wouldn’t that come in handy? We did the math: imagine our experiment fails, and after two years away we run out of money. Now we need a place to live and something to sit on. We would have spent more than six thousand dollars, just holding on to old furniture and memories in solid form.
A friend told me the other day he felt anxious reading our last post. He said he loved the idea of what we’re doing, but trying to imagine himself doing it made him feel unsteady. No job, no house, no furniture, no trinkets on the mantle, no books, no big-screen for Netflix. No closet full of clothes and shoes.
Another friend said something similar. “People dream of this! You’re actually doing it! But I could never do something like this. It would be terrifying. I need to feel rooted in a career and a home.”
Yes, people often romanticize chucking it all away and hitting the open road – especially after a particularly bad day at the salt mine. Almost no one ever does this though because – lets be clear – it’s terrifying. You can’t all at once go from piles of stuff in your home to having no home and no stuff. It’s anxiety-producing.
It took ten years for us to sneak up on this. And now we’re in the final phase of this transformation. What to sell? What to give away? Will anyone want any of it? Will we miss it? Will there be regrets?
What if no one wants our stuff? It’s a weird thought that arose while selling things before our last trip. In 2011, we set up a table at a community garage sale. We had a lot of DVDs and CDs to sell. Karen loved Sex in the City. Someone offered to buy her collection for $2 per season. Two dollars?! Per season!? Karen felt a stab in her heart. For her, it was worth far more than that.
Whether we like to admit it or not, we are what we own. Our stuff is part of the packet of signals we broadcast to the world about who we are. I’m not sure what that spatula is saying about me. I’m not sure I want to know. In the end, Karen took the man’s ten dollars and handed him the five season collection of her favourite show. Likewise followed The West Wing, and other prized things that had made the first journey from the West Coast only to die in some stranger’s pile here in Toronto.
I’m a bit of a gear-hoarding geek. People that know me well know I have expensive and eccentric taste in nearly useless things. If it’s mechanical and it ticks, if it’s sharp, or made of exotic metal (titanium, zirconium or tungsten-carbide anyone?) you have my undivided attention. I have pared down a once-extensive collection of mostly custom-made items… we’ll call them tools – watches, pocketknives, razors, flashlights, and even some things that glow with radioactive tritium gas. Most of it has to go. I’m allowed to keep a few items if they can be used on the road. I’ve been selling everything else.
Karen is a hoarder of a different order. Not much of a materialist, her weakness is notebooks and papers, old textbooks, written notes and work presentations, and books. Karen has social work textbooks from 1999, course materials from grad school, and stacks of notebooks and papers from jobs going back 12 or more years. We won’t even start to describe her wall-size sticky notes and chart paper… used for “planning” and “management” purposes. She has somehow pushed herself to the point where she can toss all of it.
This isn’t easy for us, and we’ve already been practicing for a few years. We’re betting that it will be therapeutic, liberating even. But it’s surprising how hard it grates on your ego to get rid of almost everything.
But wait…our loss could be your gain!
Maybe you’d like to buy my favorite chair? Overstuffed, Art Deco from the 1930s. Professionally re-upholstered a few years ago. Sitting in it will make you smart. Many of the custom gadgets I owned were researched and purchased from that chair. I wrote this blog post from it.
Or how about a dresser? Ask our friend’s Cailey and Brian about the quality of our dressers. They took the last one. Solid wood. Hand made. I seem to remember they needed a refrigerator dolly to move it.
An oak kitchen island? A barely used Nespresso Virtuo machine? A vintage spatula? All of it must go. So expect an email soon.
As we part with each thing, it does get a little easier. We get a little lighter, a little freer. Soon we will weigh almost nothing. We’ll get in our car, Karen will put in her favourite playlist that almost inevitably will include White Snake, Poison, and AC/DC. I will die a little inside as she jumps up and down in the car, yelling along to the music. Then we’ll head to Tim Horton’s for breakfast and the beginning of whatever comes next.