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Letting go of our stuff

June 12, 2014

We are cleaning house. After living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment for three years, we went on a square-footage spree when we moved and are now the occupants of a three-bedroom, three-level house. There are entire rooms that have only one purpose. And there are rooms that we don’t use enough to justify having them. This is not a house we would buy, but it has been a nice change from the cramped quarters we used to inhabit out of necessity. But having the luxury of choice means that we also feel we have the duty to carefully evaluate those choices. We are reassessing our priorities, and making adjustments accordingly.

We will be credit card debt-free around the time our lease is up, and we’ve decided that our next big financial goal is to save for a down payment. Starting to consider buying property means we are asking ourselves what sort of place we’d want to buy. We really like our neighborhood, but it feels like an entire house is, well, too much house for our little family of three. And multi-level living is sort of terrible. Whatever I need is always on a different floor. Always. I wish I could say this has improved my fitness, but it’s mostly just increased my annoyance.

So, we are more than likely going to move in the fall to a smaller, cheaper place. And I hate moving, so that’s a pretty good indication of my resolve when it comes to working aggressively towards this next goal. But, this decision presents a few challenges.

First is our older dog, Kipling. He is a special needs beagle. He has separation anxiety that causes him to howl, scratch, and pee when we leave him alone at home. Additionally, he is so skittish outside, even in a quiet residential neighborhood, that it is real work to get him to poop outside. We have tried pheromones, trainer, Thundershirt, games, toys, treats, crating, drugs, and getting a second beagle. He is not getting better. He is not going to do well in an apartment where our neighbors will be so much closer. So we are in the impossibly hard position of needing to find him a new home, which seems very unlikely due to all his issues, or taking him to the vet for the last time, which seems awful since he’s healthy and could reasonably live another two to five years, give or take since we’re not sure exactly how old he is.

This feels like the worst thing ever. Kipling is “my” dog. I wanted a dog for years, and I loved him so much when we got him. We didn’t know that having a poop-flinging freak-out every time we left him wasn’t normal. Now, I have less time for him, and much less patience. And we have a second beagle who is the calmest, most imperturbable dog ever. I have an actual child to care for, and I am a prisoner in my own house. I find myself getting unreasonably angry at Kipling when I come home to the inevitable messes, and I cannot fathom how to teach my child how to be gentle with the dog when I am lashing out at that same dog on a regular basis. I know it’s not Kipling’s fault that he get scared, but I feel unequipped to handle it any longer. And I don’t want to make something an adoption issue that isn’t, but I feel like if I wasn’t adopted, this would be easier. Is that a fair correlation? I don’t know. But it’s painful. There is so much guilt and anxiety and anger and sadness. I can’t see a way through this one.

The other big project we have set for ourselves it to do a major clean-out of the entire house. This is the first time we’ve had the luxury of time before a move. We can plan our departure, and do a careful audit of our stuff. There is too much of it. I have always thought so, but we’ve never been able to get a handle on all the superfluous things we own. It’s something most of us struggle with. We acquire, assign value, save, imbue with meaning, and hold on to things. Sometimes we have things just to have them. Sometimes we decide to get rid of something, but just can’t take that next step and actually do it. It’s to much work to post it to craigslist or ebay. We don’t want to throw it in the trash because that seems wasteful. We feel guilt at having purchased it in the first place, so getting rid of it feels even worse.

But then you take the first step and get rid of that one thing that’s been bugging you for months. It’s sitting there, taking up space, psychically and physically weighing you down. But you do it. And it feels so good. Why didn’t you do it months ago? You weren’t ready. So you do it now.

This is what my life has been like the past week. We finally got rid of some stuff that was just taking up room in our house. We didn’t need it. We weren’t using it. We could buy it again if we had to. So we got rid of it. Clothes, a crib, a high chair, a window air conditioner unit, old paperwork from the business, recital programs from grad school. Just a fraction of the stuff we own but don’t need to keep, but a start.

I came upon this article at the start of this process, and it really speaks to how I feel. I have been thinking about why we’re doing this now. Why do I feel like I can finally part with these things that we’ve carted around, in some cases, for our entire married life? They aren’t heirlooms. They weren’t expensive. But we’ve kept packing them into boxes and moving them from place to place, only to be unpacked and left to take up space until the next move.

I think the main difference, aside from having the time, despite having a toddler, is that we can finally afford to replace it all. You’d think that if you’re poor, you’d have fewer things, but actually, you tend to hold on to more things you don’t need because what if you need it “someday”? You’d have to buy that thing again, and you wouldn’t be able to. Having money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy you freedom from stuff you don’t need because you could buy it all over again. You don’t need to own everything to prove anything. You are in a stable place, so you can be leave things behind.

That’s not to say we don’t still buy stuff, or that we’re going to get rid of everything, or that if our net worth takes a plunge in a few years we’ll start hoarding. It’s just an observation about our own life that the more stuff we could acquire, the less stuff we want to acquire. The things we do buy are better quality, and we buy less, overall. (Except where our kid is concerned. Sometimes you need six cups because two are dirty, one’s in the car, one has milk in it, one is missing, and your kid needs water RIGHT NOW. That’s just a requirement for parenting sanity.)

The hardest stuff to get rid of is our work, or evidence of it. If I throw away this poster, did it happen? If we get rid of this brochure, did we do it? We work for months or years on these projects, and then they’re done, and all we’re left with is a recording, a postcard, a photograph, a paper, a certificate, a diploma. If you don’t have that thing that symbolizes your accomplishment, did you really do it? (No way am I getting rid of my diplomas, though.) We value things so much in our society. Not that we don’t also value people, but we often use things to assign a person’s value. It’s easy. It’s a convenient system of categorization. So how do you prove to yourself that you have value without any stuff?

As I lined up our trash can and recycling bins this morning, I thought about all the stuff that was in them. Parts of our lives were going to be smushed up and carried away. Then I thought about the things we donated to a local charity this week. That stuff will live on, somewhere. Hopefully it will help someone who needs it. Do I feel different? A little. I feel grateful that I have the time to do this sorting and thinking right now at this particular time, but I know we’ll have to do it again in a few years. That’s just how it works. You acquire, you save, you hold tight, you let go.

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