Life is the sum of our decisions and their consequences. For many months now, the decision Karen and I made to give up our house and its contents had no immediate consequences. Our choice to live the next few years in itinerant and indefinite style was still only a concept, something we thought about but didn’t have to experience in the present. Our decision wasn’t whim, obviously. We’ve been inching our way to this point for a decade. Even then, it took eighteen months of discussion for us to make the decision. Still, for a very long time we had the luxury of returning from the salt mines every evening to the same cozy apartment, to sit on and be surrounded by familiar things.
That all changed when we made our decision public. We told our employers we were leaving. We wrote a blog post and told everyone else we were leaving. Then we began to sell or give away our things. Suddenly, we were watching our material world slowly shrink.
First they came for the couch. We helped trot it out the door and into a waiting rental van. For most of its time in our homes in Vancouver, Victoria and Toronto, the couch was Karen’s nest. Now she was nestless. I could feel her grief. While we had waited for our friends to come for the couch, she’d begun reminiscing about how great it had been. About how well it was made. Remember how hard it was to find a well-made couch that wasn’t three thousand dollars? So easy to clean, too. If I hadn’t burned one of the cushions, it would look brand new!
I washed down one of the brown plastic Muskoka chairs and hauled it inside from the patio for her to sit on. My nest has always been the plush antique Blue Chair, and I was lucky I had a few days yet to sit in it. Two weeks ago we carried it out to the street and into a car for its journey to a new home. It now lives at the centre of a battle between a Golden Retriever and a husband for the squatting rights over the chair. Odds favour the dog.
Karen and I now each have our own Muskoka chair. We sit in them in our living room, watching Netflix on our MacBook. Eccentric doesn’t begin to describe it.
A friend came over and I helped him take apart the kitchen island. We carried it outside in pieces and watched him drive away to Oakville with it. Now we had a pile of pots and pans to deal with. I still have dozens of meals to cook for the family, or else these would have joined other piles for a reunion in the dumpster. Instead, I put one large soup pot/steamer thing on the floor in the bedroom closet, slid the frying pans into the oven, and crammed the rest of the pots into a kitchen cupboard.
One of our bed frames and a set of winter tires for the car both left from the underground parking lot where they had lived. Friends came for breakfast. They left with a large canvas photograph we took in Malaysia and a Kamakura-style Buddha. When we went to a friend’s house for Taiwanese dumplings one Sunday morning, we carried over two tall chairs for his kitchen. We ate dumplings and noodles sitting in those chairs, and when we left, they stayed.
Our friend Cailey came over with Amber to say hello. They left with an antique wooden arm chair, a Gripstand bowl and a large cast iron skillet, seasoned to perfection. At the same time, she made arrangements to come back for the cooling droid and the large floor lamp.
One weekend, we dragged storage boxes out of the closet and sifted through what remains of our mutual collection of books, product boxes, old backpacks and briefcases, documents, photographs, and a lot of other accumulations. A couple of hours later we had honed the pile down to essentials. Essential essentials. Like our marriage licence and family photographs of great grandparents. Some things that are not ours to throw away. Other things would be sold or given away. Everything else got dumped into the recycling or garbage bins.
We separated our clothes into two piles: Home and Away. The Away pile includes camping as well as travel clothing – there are some subtle differences. Home is what we’ll wear to a future job interview or when we go out with family and don’t want to look like archaeologists. That box is pretty small. We also decided to keep our Canada Goose coats and winter boots. Just in case. Everything else is going in the garbage or was donated. The wooden hangers are going to respective buyers.
Then came the penultimate end. A friend managed to get us our own table at a large church garage sale last weekend. There were willing buyers for almost everything we wanted to sell. We started out with a car loaded with stuff and returned with one platter and two bowls. I drove them to a local community agency that helps immigrants and refugees get settled. We had two boxes full of clothing, shoes, ironing board, iron, and household items for them.
What’s left? A bed to sleep on, utensils to feed ourselves, and a rug beneath our Muskokas. The mattress is going to a friend the morning we leave. The Muskokas will join others like them on our neighbour’s patio, and the bed frame will either be sold or taken apart to be stored at a friend’s house. The living room rug, coffee table, shower curtain, duvet, bedding, towels and old kitchen things will end their useful life in a landfill the evening before we go.
That leaves the things we will actually take with us – backpacks, camping gear, camera and laptops. And also a Vitamix and a small Persian carpet. And the family spatula [link to bonfire post]. Perchie wants it back because someone named Doug Mugford gave it to him in 1967. There’s a matching ladle. That means we will drive to Newfoundland and back across Canada to Vancouver accompanied by a blender, a rug, the spatula and a ladle.
As the number of days before we leave inches into single digits, we’re now confronting the consequences of our careful decision made so long ago in the comfort of our living room. Watching our material world shrink around us has created surprisingly strong and conflicting feelings. Every day is different. The butterflies of excitement and anticipation can change to sparks of anxiety and uncertainty.
Our house and its things are comforting, but also suffocating. Watching all of this stuff go has brought feelings of attachment into view. Feelings for things that aren’t even significant, if looked at objectively.
At the garage sale, a customer handed me money for my golf clubs and picked up the bag to cart them away to his car. For a moment, I felt a small tug at the back of my heart. For what? I had them twelve years. They’ve been stored away for 90 per cent of their time in our possession. I’ve used them twice since we moved to Toronto. Only once was in an actual game of golf. Maybe that tug is fear? Uncertainty about what’s next? The golf clubs are associated only to my working life, my career and that part of my identity. And that’s the part under most threat soon.
Or maybe it’s the tug of attachment to memories. My dad gave me the set of golf clubs one year as a birthday gift when I worked in politics. He thought I should play golf with people. I disagreed and thought it was a silly thing to do, a waste of money. Turned out he was exactly right. And it also turned out that I loved the game, at least for the couple of years that I played. But the actual thing isn’t necessary for me to cherish and laugh at the memory of me yelling at him when he called to tell me he’d bought golf lessons for me. The gift was actually more thoughtful than I had understood at the time. He had been thinking of my success. The gratitude and the appreciation I have for that fatherly act are safely locked away in the mind. I can recall them whenever I want. But the clubs themselves don’t matter anymore. Same goes for the garlic pot I’ve had since 1989. And for the large binder of type-written employer reference letters Karen has had since the 1990s or the dress she wore to our marriage ceremony.
There have been lots of tugs these last few weeks. Karen has felt them, too. But we aren’t just saying goodbye to stuff. We’re also leaving behind our friends, our colleagues, and our jobs. Many people might think saying goodbye to a job would be a gift from heaven. But it isn’t easy when you truly like the work you do and the people you do it with. The tug of attachment to people, daily routine, and even work projects can feel the same as letting go of that Christmas decoration you’ve had for 16 years.
Like tearing off a band aid, each time we let something go there is a sudden tug and then it it’s gone a few moments later. It’s quickly replaced by a feeling of relief. Despite how hard making big life transitions is, the risk of staying is far more perilous for us. By choosing safety and routine, of just stockpiling more money and more stuff, is to risk letting our years slip away in the illusion of comfort and safety. We could stay here, make more money to buy more stuff, only to find ourselves unable to do anything with any of it.
Saying goodbye isn’t easy. We know because we’ve done this a few times. But our old friends know that we’re never really that far away. The blog posts and personal email notes keep us connected with people we love. We’ve even met up with friends in the far away places of the world. Old friends and old colleagues know that if they want to stay in contact with us, we are really great at staying connected no matter where we are or what we end up doing. So really, this isn’t goodbye, it’s “see you next time.”
We’re turning the tugs into hugs.