In September 2002, I made the decision to move from California to Australia to live with my partner, and by December I was flying to Melbourne. In just two months, I packed up or got rid of all my material possessions.
As forty-one-year-old middle-class Americans go, I had relatively few belongings, but packing was unpleasant and seemed interminable. By mid-November I was working some sixty hours a week on the move, yet I saw no progress. In fact, my belongings seemed to be expanding.
And worse, no one could help me: I alone had to consider every object in my possession, from safety pins to automobiles, from furniture to love letters, from dream catchers to filing cabinets, from fishnet stockings to special rocks. I had to think about and handle every sock, every old toothbrush (kept for cleaning silver), every piece of paper fallen behind the desk. I found endless, useless, redundant junk: Plastic Mardi Gras beads. (I’ve never been to Mardi Gras.) A couple of eyeglass-repair kits. (I don’t wear glasses.) Dozens of paper napkins I never bought. Cat toys my cats never played with. Two (!) complete works of Shakespeare. Angela, my doll from 1963. A couple of hits of mescaline — enshrined since the early eighties in plastic wrap, inside tinfoil, inside cardboard — and a bag of pot, at least eight years old, kept for guests.
I gave away or recycled some 25 percent of what I owned, but for every remaining possession, I had to decide whether to sell, store, ship it, or throw it away. I hate to throw things away. A fanatical recycler, I cannot justify filling up landfills with plastic or metal junk. Tossing a perfectly good frying pan or pair of old pants seems not just wasteful to me, but selfish and wrong. And yet, some things really weren’t good enough even for charity shops. I am sure Goodwill turned around and put a lot of what I donated right into the garbage bin.
I had four garage sales. Two should have been enough, but I was anxious about money. Although I had more savings than ever before, I had little income because moving was taking all my time, and I knew I wouldn’t have a work visa in Australia. Feelings of financial insecurity made every sale matter, and fear made me ungenerous. I was determined to get at least four dollars for an incomplete set of wineglasses. A close friend and I got mad at each other over the price of a bed.
I hated negotiating and arguing with — or not arguing with but resenting — prospective buyers. I got angry if they bought nothing or haggled over my already ridiculously low prices. If I was selling CDs for a dollar, people asked if I’d take fifty cents. Sometimes, furious at their cheapness — and my own — I refused to bargain. Other times I took their quarters and nickels, and later, like Scrooge, I counted them up.
For the possessions I kept, it ended up costing about five hundred dollars to mail the smaller items to Australia, and another two thousand dollars to ship the rest by sea. It also took three thousand dollars to prepare, move, and quarantine my cats — about $165 per feline pound. In the process, I gleaned much bizarre information about shipping. For instance, it is illegal to mail goods overseas in boxes that bear the logo of any liquor. It is not, so far as I know, illegal to ship alcohol itself — just the boxes are prohibited.
If not being shipped, the things I wanted to keep had to be stored. But where? With friends or in professional storage centers? For how long, and under what conditions, and how much might it cost? I thought of such questions day and night, even in my sleep.
Why do we keep these things? What is it all for? For the purpose of understanding my own compulsions, I came up with some categories.
Stuff Related To People
I kept gifts as if letting go were an insult to the giver, even when I was no longer in touch with the person; even if the person was no longer living. My mother (who is still living) had given me the most extraordinary range of presents, from things I used constantly (a food processor) to things that I kept well hidden (an ostrich-feather-tipped ballpoint pen).
I had to remind myself that the glass ashtray that had once belonged to my grandfather was not my grandfather; it wasn’t even my memories of the man. Lo! I could get rid of it and still keep the memories. And, conversely, keeping the object didn’t allow me to keep the person.
I discovered a small, diamond-shaped denim patch — the kind you might see on a car mechanic’s overalls — emblazoned with the words “Silver Roadways” in white stitching. My first boyfriend (England, 1976) had ripped it off a pair of his jeans. At the time, my favorite song was Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote,” about the refuge of the road: “You just picked up a hitcher / a prisoner of the white lines on the freeway.” Well, white lines, freeway, Silver Roadways: it was cosmic — when I was sixteen. It had promised me a nomad’s life of romantic loneliness. But why had I kept it?
The patch showed up at the bottom of a wicker hamper that also held a bronze medal from a 1974 Mexican swimming competition. I’d kept the medal with the idea of sending it back to the friend who’d given it to me — a way of saying how much that person meant to me: Look what I’ve held on to all these years! But so what? It’s not as if I’d rubbed the bronze weekly and reflected on its winner’s significance to my life or the world of sport. I’d simply neglected to discard it. Anyway, I didn’t even know where that friend was now.
I also kept items related to famous people (or people who might become famous one day): A concert T-shirt signed (on my person, above my left breast) by singer-songwriter Holly Near. A purple silk scarf given to me by novelist Alice Walker. A mouth stick that had belonged to poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, who’d lived in an iron lung and used the stick to type. It was a great reminder of him except that the mouthpiece had melted on the dashboard of my car and resembled flattened bubble gum. Handwritten words from Ferron, poet laureate of the lesbian nation. Letters of recommendation (and solace, when the recommendation didn’t work) from literary critic Terry Eagleton. Some forty signed paperbacks by little-known authors — not one of them, I found, of any value on eBay.
Stuff I Thought I Would Use Someday
I had expected to find mostly mementos of the past, but as it turned out, the bulk of what I’d kept was not keepsakes, but tools for hypothetical future projects. It was as if I believed I could stave off loneliness, old age, and dementia by keeping a bevy of craft materials nearby.
Around the time my first boyfriend was presenting me with patches from old jeans, my mother was taking me on shopping trips to Cambridge, where we bought clothes so well-made that I wore them into my thirties. I still have one of the coats.
That was the beginning of my buying “good things.” Well before Martha Stewart turned the phrase into a consumer cliché, the English used “good things” to mean items of value, well-made and expensive. My Russell and Bromley boots were — and still are, twenty years later — good boots. I still believe in buying clothes that last. So why did I have leatherette wristbands? Why a folding hairbrush? Why so damn many hairbrushes when I had two Mason Pearson brushes, which cost a fortune and last a lifetime?
I had a great deal of clothing, much of which I never wore. Some pieces were relics, marginally valuable to vintage collectors: a 1960s red paisley shirt with puffed sleeves and tight cuffs; a black, woolen English bobby’s cape. I sold or gave away trunkloads of clothes. When I started, I had more than sixty pairs of underwear, fifty T-shirts, and thirty-four pairs of shoes. And these were clothes I liked.
I had to face a rack of suits I never wore and pants that hadn’t fit since 1998. I’d held on to them as if their presence would slim me down. (On the other hand, I was always quick to get rid of trousers that got too big, whisking them to the consignment shop as soon as they needed a belt to stay up. I didn’t want to give myself sartorial room, as it were, to regain the weight.)
Stuff That Could Be Valuable Someday
All the things I’d saved thinking they would increase in value had to go: A mink stole that probably had cost my great-uncle several months’ wages netted me fifty dollars on Usedfurs.com. The pre-1960 pennies I’d hunted for and slid into keepsake folders were worth approximately one cent each. Why do we think that junk will appreciate with age? If I don’t want that silver tea service now, why would anyone want it in the future? Antique shops, I’ve learned, are so full of old silver tea services that dealers won’t even look at them.
Now when I go to such shops, I feel sad looking at the things that people held on to, thinking that their trinkets would be worth something someday. I imagine it’s mostly little old ladies (like the one I am fast becoming) who hoard these trifles: the china sets and crystal glassware; the silver cutlery in creaky leather cases a little mildewed at the bottom; the Irish-linen tablecloths that have to be hand-washed because they shrink to handkerchief size if you put them in the machine. Someone’s mother treasured this mahogany box for sixty years and then died — probably without having laid eyes on the thing for decades.
These women and I save such heirlooms in hopes that our children’s children will someday want them. I imagine getting a call from a great-niece in 2025: “Aunt Jill, do you have a pewter milk jug with a broken lid? You do? I’ll be right over!”
Once, rummaging through someone’s possessions after the person had died, I came across a wad of envelopes — used, empty envelopes — neatly rubber-banded together and labeled “Christmas Card Envelopes.” Some were postmarked from the 1950s. I fear that when I die, someone is going to find something equally pathetic and strange. How about the cardboard boxes marked “Manuscripts to Work On”? Or the lottery tickets whose results I never got around to checking?
I once knew a professor to whom fell the unenviable task of cleaning out the desk of a colleague who had committed suicide. One of the drawers, he said, was wedged shut. When, after much tugging, he managed to open the drawer, he found it crammed full of tiny, ground-down pencil nubs. They were sadder in a way, he said, than the suicide.
The bulk of my junk was paper. Reams and reams of it — how many trees’ worth? I had a filing cabinet piled with old manuscripts: stories and snippets and scenes going as far back as college. A few of them were labeled “Ideas to Work On,” but, far from working on them, I didn’t even want to read them. I glanced through a few, finding them either awful and familiar, or decent and totally unfamiliar. I thought a few were the work of my students until I saw my name on them.
I unearthed term papers from college literature classes, with titles like “Broads, Balloons, and Denial: Images of Women in The Great Gatsby,” and “ ‘Sir, I will’: Ophelia’s Speeches to Hamlet.” There was a passionate graduate-school treatise on vampire themes in a modernist novel. Of these gems of literary criticism I have deprived the world by hurling them into the largest cardboard box I could find, bound for the landfill.
I came across a palm-sized notebook that I had ostentatiously carried around in graduate school, writing down my friends’ bons mots, such as:
I thought by this stage in my life, making gravy would just come to me.
— Janina Lynne, age forty-four, in her kitchen,
Thanksgiving Day, 1986
It seemed as if I’d never thrown out a half-written story, or even a long scene. Romans à clef and one-act plays went into the trash box, as did story after paper-clipped story that I couldn’t even remember writing. Some were pretty good — but so what? The world is full of half-finished, pretty good stories.
I’d kept these pieces thinking that, one day, short of ideas or friends, with too much time and too little to do, I’d go back and finish them. It never happened. I never used so much as a line of dialogue.
Reader, I threw them out.
Stuff We Keep To Maintain Other Stuff
This is the most annoying category. In my house, I listened to music maybe twice a month, but I had a few hundred recordings. So I had racks to hold the plastic cassette and CD cases. I had screws and brackets to mount the racks on the wall. I had special hole-filler to fill in the holes when I moved the brackets. I had a cassette-head-cleaner tape and fluid to put on this special tape, and I had a bag to house these cleaning supplies.
Most of us have things to support our other things. Consider some of the material devices involved in the maintenance of money: monthly bank statements with envelopes and glossy inserts, checkbooks, checkbook covers with pen holders and pens, wallets, credit cards, credit-card holders, paper rolls to hold coins, certificates of deposit, piggy banks, stocks and bonds, change purses.
The One Thing I Didn’t Find But Wish I Had
A viable will. I have no legal, comprehensive way to disperse my belongings after I die. I have not yet provided for the big clearing-out that my death will entail for someone else.
I feel bad about only one thing I got rid of: I gave a Wedgwood bowl, a present from my mother, to my landlady, only to find out later that the landlady had unfairly withheld my entire security deposit. I had to threaten her with legal action to get my money back. Now I resent her having that lovely antique, which I am sure she doesn’t appreciate. It’s not the thing I miss; it’s the goodwill it represented.
My friend David, who has moved overseas several times, talks with rapture about the process of selling his belongings. He uses the phrase “giddy with divestment.” Although I wished to be similarly giddy, I was not even faintly lighthearted. I was an emotional disaster. My house was a wreck, and so was my mind.
Having my kitchen in chaos upset me. Usually an energetic and curious cook, during my move I stopped clipping recipes and trying new dishes. I had no chance to use the ice-cream maker or the crockpot one last time before I sold them to strangers. Reluctantly, I gave away my extensive, exotic spice collection, with the single strand of saffron never removed from its egglike glass container; the vanilla beans still whole and expectant. I shipped my Calphalon pots (good, but also very heavy, things) by sea, so they were gone weeks before I left. All that remained was a crummy frying pan and a microwave oven, in which I prepared horrible meals that only made me feel worse.
By the end of the move, nothing was funny. I woke up tense each morning and rushed from task to task all day, made uncomfortable by back strain and carpal-tunnel syndrome (not to mention headaches and hunger from my sparse junk-food diet). Late at night, I collapsed in a nervous exhaustion that did not feel like sleep. At one point, my partner called from Australia and asked me, “Is it too much for you?”
I was frustrated beyond words. What if I said that it was? If I admitted it was too much, I’d have to give up. But it was too much: I was overworked, overwhelmed, and alone.
People asked why I didn’t just call someone to come and take away all my things. The answer is because I couldn’t find anyone to do it. I tried several times to get someone, anyone to take it all away, to sell or dump or keep as he or she wished, but no one wanted it.
Now the move is long over, but I still feel shaken. Though I have settled into a comfortable, clean house that my partner and I have bought, I have nightmares in which it is the morning of my flight: My lease ends in a few hours, and I am surrounded by heavy suitcases and bulging boxes. I don’t know what to do with it all. Unable to move or decide, I open a door to find another room in my cottage, one I had forgotten: full of junk.
Looking back, I wonder how much of the crisis I created. I underestimated how long it would take to pack. Two months seemed like ample time, but it wasn’t. I didn’t know how many possessions I had, nor how complicated a move could be. I had read the books on simplifying my life and followed the instructions about cleaning out drawers and closets, but I hadn’t been thorough. Although the surfaces looked clear, underneath were a lot of things I did not want to think about.
Dealing with every single object I owned forced me to admit some unpleasant truths about myself. First of all, I was a hoarder. I’d thought that I didn’t keep anything unnecessary, but really I just hadn’t been paying attention. When I found the old letters and dried flowers, the clothes from high school and the strange little gifts, I had to admit that I had kept them, and for no good reason.
The other unpleasant truth was why I had kept them: emotional avoidance. I don’t think of myself as someone who dodges confrontation, but it is much easier, when one comes across a ten-year-old bit of flotsam, to toss it back in the drawer or cupboard for another decade than it is to take it out, dust it off, and consider the memories attached to it — especially if the memories are painful. In moving, I had to think about passed-over dreams and ruined relationships. It was especially difficult to give away reminders of people I had hurt or who had hurt me. It was as if I’d hoped that keeping the thing would help heal the hurt.
Maybe some people can just throw things away without thinking about them — perhaps those are the people who don’t hoard in the first place — but not me. For each old gift, I had to relive the scene in which I’d received it. And each time, I had to give myself a little lecture: “Letting go of this object will not change the memories or the situation.”
Most debilitating, finally, was the realization that I was not going to do anything with all that I’d kept. Life is too short for me to answer letters from five years ago, to revise old stories, to turn that broken necklace into a wall hanging. When I was younger, it was easy to think that I would read a certain book, or write a book, or make use of an object someday, perhaps when I was old and tired and forty. Now, at forty-one, the time I have left is not sufficient for me to use all those things I thought I might need. But as long as I held on to them, they created a little buffer zone against mortality: how could I die if I still had a novel to rewrite?
Strangely, letting go of that buffer does not make death feel any closer. All that stuff wasn’t me. Without that extra load, I feel more myself, more whole, less distracted. I am sure that if I reduced my belongings by 50 percent again, I’d feel even better. But for now I am content to rest, to stop simplifying, which can in itself become an obsession and a distraction from living.
It would be too easy to say I will never again own so many things. It’s more realistic to say I won’t keep so many things I don’t use, and nothing that I don’t even know about. I did recently buy a filing cabinet, but I am keeping it not only neat but underfilled — no more holding on to papers I might need someday. I want to keep my possessions minimal, my home spacious, and my mind clear.
There is one last category, the leftovers of the leftovers.
Things I Couldn’t Let Go Of Until Now
I still have that “Silver Roadways” patch. It’s in a file on my desk marked “Stuff to Send to Other People.” I can get rid of it now, because the patch itself isn’t especially interesting, and the words on it no longer feel full of promise. In the twenty-six years that I’ve owned that scrap of fabric, I’ve lived that fantasy of travel and independence. I no longer need a symbol of that dream. I am going to send it back to the old boyfriend who gave it to me, even if doing so is a little silly. I will let him decide whether to toss it, or give it to someone else, or keep it around somewhere, to remind him of who we once wanted to be.