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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How to Condense a Life

I have this problem with packing. When I take a trip, I over the extreme. Legend has it that I once took the Tulsa phone book on a trip to London, just so I could peruse the "Hanson" entries (I was a very dedicated fan). In more recent times, a two or three day trip can result in a backpack almost as heavy as the one I carted around Europe for three months. I don't know why this happens - I just like to be prepared. With clothing options. And accessories. And shoes for all weather scenarios. And my hemp supplies, in case I have time in my action-packed weekend away to make a bracelet. And this pair of red sandals I've never worn but might just find the outfit finally that they go with. And ....the list goes on.

I've been traveling recently - lots of visits to Chicago and Nashville - and each trip results in the Confrontation With the Backpack: stuffed full of things that I think I need, a moment's reflection on the upcoming trip, indecision regarding the fifth pair of pants I packed, then eventual back strain as I hoist the thing up and out of the house. And each time, 80% of it goes unused.

This pattern of over-packing and under-using has forced me to assess the general concept of Belongings. I have been a fringe hoarder my entire life, and therefore I have a lot of *stuff*.

Actually, I used to have way too much stuff. Now I just have a decent amount of stuff. I have been slowly, steadily, painstakingly ridding myself of my possessions. It started with cleaning out my closet, several times. Each time, several more tons of junk would exit my bedroom wrapped in garbage bags, destined for Goodwill or the dump. Then I began to assess things in the spare room closet - all sorts of mementos, childhood objects, school records, stuffed animals galore.

Again, a large majority went to Goodwill or the dump.

This process has crept slowly throughout the entire house. And with each new item or object that I part ways with, I feel lighter. Relieved.

Incredibly, my life continues without the ironing board from college, or the Black & Decker griddle that I haven't used in three years but just didn't want to get rid of in case of a pancake emergency, or the variety of stuffed animals that I distantly remember from childhood. It turns out I don't really need to have all of the homework I completed from my sophomore year of high school in order to fondly recall my school days. Nor did I need to hang on to the miniature Pat Catan's store I'd created in my bedroom featuring a wide array of unused and almost-empty oil paints, "just in case I got back to painting". (I never did.)

At times, my hoarding tendencies weren't so much an unwillingness to part with objects but just simple overlooking - these things had existed for so long in my breathing space that I forgot they were even there. They had become a part of the backdrop - physically, and emotionally. Because a lot of the things vying for space in my house were connected with the past. Childhood, my teenage years, college experiences, and beyond. Even the unusable oil paints were a sort of placeholder for my past, because they represented a phase of my life when I was incredibly inspired to express myself through painting.

All of these things were occupying an incredible amount of space and ENERGY. It became exhausting to even spend time in my bedroom because there was just so many parts of my life on full display. I couldn't look around without absent-mindedly recalling some aspect of my own life, which is a fun journey, but quite time-consuming to enact every single day. So I tore stuff down, and painted, and hung artwork that had been laying unused for years, and most importantly, I purged.

In fact, I am still purging. And as the Departure Date grows nearer, I am finding that not only can I get rid of more of my possessions, I also do not need the majority of what I think I need. While 80% of my backpack gets unused during a vacation or weekend trip, 80% of my general belongings and earthly possessions are similarly unused.

Plain English, folks : We don't need much to live.

A travel blogger once commented that he rid himself of Stuff until all of his earthly possessions could fit into one cardboard box (minus his guitar, which he left with his mom). I'm not going to claim that this type of Reductionism is the only way to go, but the forward motion that this startling idea produced was enough to get my to begin whittling down my stuff, which was essentially an act of paring down my life.

Is it any coincidence that things in my life are much easier now? Less crap is less crap.

A couple areas I refuse to budge on:
-I will not get rid of my library. I have gone through my bookshelves a thousand times, struggling to find just one more book to donate or sell, and I won't. Books are extremely important to me and it may be something I have to confront down the road, but for now, we'll let the beast sleep.
-My piano. This is going to continue living with my dad.
-Photos. Like, real, actual, 35mm photos. This is one of the best ways to remember a life, as opposed to crusty tubes of decades-old oil paint. Photo albums are good things to keep tucked away for fond reminiscing, and the whole "tucked away" aspect ensures that those memories won't physically exhaust you daily.

I'm not done with the process yet. There is still more to let go, to purge, to release into the wild yonder of second-hand thrift stores. And I need to seriously assess what I will need for my upcoming trip to Chile, because I know the frenzy of the outfit what-ifs will take over as it always does.

At the very least, the more that I take with me in the beginning is more stuff that I can drop off along the way, whether as donations, emergency sales, barter uses...or maybe somewhere out there in the world, I will meet a girl that will need the pair of red sandals I've never worn and I will triumphantly stand up, hand her the shoes, and say, "Here, I brought these just for you."

(Now go read that article that made me start shedding my physical possessions: Minimalism)

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