Monday, October 31, 2016

Sidebar: The Fire Drill Test

As I young child I'd always worried about my house catching on fire. We never had one (thankfully), but for some reason I felt the need to be prepared in case there was one. I'd spend a lot of time thinking about how I'd escape from my second-story bedroom window. But I'd also spend a lot of time trying to figure out how I would get my cat to safety and then my stuff (mostly stuffed animals).

As an adult I continued to wonder what to do in the event of fire - our apartments frequently had fire safety drills so it was often top of mind. And I would mentally run through a fire drill just to see what I would save, if I could save anything.

Not surprisingly, over the years, it varied little.

In order of importance and in the order I would "save" it, here is what I would take:
  1. My guy (assuming he was incapable of saving himself) and my pets - I refuse to move any living being I'm responsible for down to #2 on the list.
  2. My loved ones' ashes.
  3. My computer + portable hard drive - it has all my photos and home videos on it. (Yes, I digitized most everything.)
  4. My wallet - identification, bank card, credit cards, cash are hugely important items.
  5. My keys - to either return home or to get into my car.
  6. My phone - to call loved ones to assure them I'm okay and to let them know what happened.
Of course if I had more than a minute, I would stack my furniture dolly with my 3 bins of photo albums and scrapbooks and keepsakes/mementos. And maybe grab my Kindle.

Everything that has real value to me that is non-living I could fit in a small backpack. Everything is in easy reach should I have to vacate quickly.

While I may need other things to live comfortably - clothing, bedding, toiletries, some furniture and electronics - they are all replaceable.

And while I might feel a financial loss at their absence, or be annoyed that I had to buy them again, I wouldn't miss them. Not really.

Which is why this is a test that I need to "run" often, especially when I am feeling particularly forgetful.

The Events That Started Me On This Path

Aside from having too much time to think and find things to obsess over, there were a few events that made me take a look at my life and my environment and make me want a change.

The first was September 11. After the horrific events of that day I realized that what was most important to me wasn't career, but family. I was in New York at the time, my guy was working in the area, and those moments when I couldn't reach him were the worst of my life to that point. And while there was so much more that happened on that day - and so much worse to so many people - and I don't want to minimize any of that, to keep on point here I won't go off on that lengthy tangent.

But it was the first time in my life that I started to realize the true importance of the people and beings in my life over the need for success in career. I had been so focused on achieving career goals to that point that I never took time to embrace what might have been lost.

And so I started coming home earlier to my overstuffed apartment to play with my cat and spend time with my guy. I made an effort to connect with my parents by phone each week.

And it was then that I looked around at my environment and realized how unimportant all the stuff that filled my space was. Because if the world were to fall apart, there were only two things in that space that I would truly mourn losing. Not the stuff.

***

The next event that changed my outlook on life and stuff was the passing of my cat. It was unexpected and absolutely devastating. I'm not one of those people who see their pets as children, but she was such a bright light in my life and one of my very best friends.

After her passing, coming back to an empty apartment (my guy always worked later than I did) was just that - coming back to a 425 s.f. space filled with stuff. It was a box. A crowded, cluttered box. It wasn't home. She was home. My guy was home. The apartment was just a place. My stuff didn't make me smile when I walked in the door. My stuff didn't give me a reason to walk in the door in the first place.

I couldn't say hi to my stuff. My stuff didn't need me. Most of my stuff didn't even bring me joy at all.

***

The third event that put me on this path to less were pests. We'd been living in our apartment for a number of years and had all sorts of neighbors who perhaps weren't as diligent about keeping things clean. (I may have had clutter, but I was all about cleanliness.) It was New York City and while we were lucky enough (mostly) to avoid roaches, we were unfortunate enough to have (unknowingly) gotten carpet beetles thanks to some neighbor or other that brought them into the building.

I'd never even heard of these detestable creatures. But they became the bane of my existence over the next two years. Because we moved not realizing they'd hitched a ride on one piece of carpeted cat furniture we brought. And while our new space was 1,200 s.f. and barely filled, it made me paranoid that all the stuff I had from our old space was somehow compromised or could become compromised. Because carpet beetle larvae like things like fabric and paper and cardboard. And much of my cherished mementos were cardboard and paper and fabric.

It was this "tragic" event that made me realize that hanging onto stuff - even what I'd considered meaningful - was a burden. It was an emotional burden, a financial burden, and a physical one. I had to worry about my stuff. I had to maintain my stuff in a way that it wouldn't get damaged, destroyed, infested. I had to buy stuff to contain my stuff.

***

The final event that set me on this path was moving across the country. While I'd known from previous moves that possessions got whittled down, opting to drive across the country with only a small trailer tow with all your things meant something very different. Out went the bed, sofa, lounge chairs, unneeded kitchen supplies, oversized TV, dressers, bookcases, and on. We only kept a few easy-to-move pieces of furniture, household items, electronics, books, films, and clothes, and all remaining mementos that I couldn't part with.

And it was so freeing to have so little to worry about. Everything had been checked and packed and sealed carefully. There was no possibility of damage or breakage or bugs. It was nice heading off to a new future with my guy, two cats (yes there were now two) in tow, and very few belongings to stress over.

Being homeless (temporarily), jobless (temporarily), and without a clock to watch made me appreciate the simplicity of just living and being and experiencing. I would never go back to a life ruled by stuff.

I should never have said never. Fast forward to one year later..

To be continued...

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Background

For as long as I can remember, my possessions were nearly as important, if not as important or even more important, than the people in my life.

As a small child I didn't have many things that were mine. But the things that were mine I was very possessive of and careful with. I did not like to share. I wanted them treated with care. I wanted them arranged in a specific way. I knew exactly where each thing was and how it was placed and if it got touched or moved it would enrage me.

As I got older I began to acquire more stuff. By the time I was a teenager I had a couple cartons worth of stuff that I had to worry about and organize and arrange and re-arrange. I did not like things to be out of order. Everything had to be perfect. Which got harder the more stuff I accumulated.

When I opted to move in with my father I had to leave behind some of my stuff as his small apartment couldn't accommodate everything I had acquired. But even the single box worth of stuff I brought caused me endless amounts of stress and sleepless nights. There wasn't a perfect place for everything. And try as I might I couldn't keep my things in the right way in a single place that I had control over.

Plus, there was still that stuff I left behind with my mom to worry about. Though not for long. When she moved away a year later she tossed it all. And while I didn't have to worry about that stuff anymore, for years and years and years I did miss it and fret over the fact that I no longer had it and was angry about the fact that it was discarded.

My father upgraded his apartment and I got my very own bedroom with a very nice closet with storage space. And so I was able to collect more stuff and save more stuff. I had my records, and my magazines, and my books. I had my childhood stuffed animals. I had my mementos. And my clothes. And jewelry. And schoolbooks. And papers. And photos. And accessories.

When I left for college I had to again leave behind much of my stuff. I could bring one trunk full of stuff. The rest was left in my dad's possession to watch over and care for while away.

In school I had very little control over my stuff. Roommates wanted to borrow my stuff, and whether I wanted it or not, it was borrowed. Some stuff went missing, and to this day i remember exactly what left my life without my say so and who was the responsible party.

After school ended, I had every intention of returning for the stuff my father was keeping, but well-intentioned or not it had gotten destroyed in a flooded basement and was discarded. While I had my most cherished possessions with me, I missed those papers and magazines and trinkets that I'd left in his care.

And it only made me more attached to the stuff that remained.

I went on to law school, moved into a nice but small apartment, bought or was given furniture to use, stored some of my stuff in the two small closets available and displayed the rest.

I didn't have a ton of stuff when I started school. Much of what I owned were necessities (as by that point most of my childhood treasures were destroyed). But during those three years of school I managed to double and then triple and then quadruple what I owned.

My 425 square foot apartment became so packed with stuff in those three years I could barely move around. I had an overwhelming number of clothes and shoes and purses for a career I already knew I didn't want. And the credit card debt to go along with it.

I had amassed hundreds and hundreds of books (which I'd read), CDs, DVDs, video games. All there to fill a need I didn't even know I had - to be happy. Because going into significant debt to become a lawyer was making me the opposite of happy.

Of course I had to buy bookshelves on which to house these things. And more furniture to fill the empty spaces - a sleeper loveseat for when guests might come to stay, a table and chairs in case I wanted to eat somewhere other than the couch, a wardrobe for all those extra clothes.

And on and on it went. Until I had no more room to put stuff without getting rid of the other stuff. Until I had no more money to buy stuff... or rather no more available credit to buy stuff.

And I wasn't happy. I didn't feel satisfied or fulfilled. None of these new things had meaning, except for perhaps my books.

Once I decided that law was not a career for me and was faced with some pretty tough choices in life - where do I want to go, what do I want to do, who am I, who do I want to be? - I started to look around at my environment with a new eye.

My space was a mess and I didn't want it to be.

Back then there weren't the kind of resources that there are now. People weren't talking about their urge to purge or ways to go about doing it. So I started small - I got rid of the things I wasn't using, that friends might be interested in.

It was painful. Agonizingly so. But, bit by bit, piece by piece, I gave away all those dust collectors and furniture items I had no real use for. I later discovered that if I took a picture of something before I purged it I could still have the memory of it even if I didn't have object itself - which I thought might be enough to help me part with those more difficult items. And for the next few years I rid myself of some of those keepsakes that I'd been holding onto, books I knew I wouldn't likely read again, schoolwork that wasn't likely to be a resource.

And I finally got to a place where I was happy with the amount I'd shed.

Which would have been great - a goal reached. Except for the fact that to fill the empty spaces left by the stuff I no longer wanted I acquired new stuff. Definitely not as much stuff. But my tastes had changed and so I wanted a computer hutch, a new couch and chairs, a new bed and bed frame, a new television.

And so started a cycle of bingeing and purging that has plagued me, in some form or another, to this day. But it has to end. Which is one of the reasons why I started this blog.

***

Since those early days of decluttering I've read countless books on the topic, watched umpteen t.v. shows, and spent a ton of money seeking organizational supplies that would hopefully make me feel good about the fact that I was keeping or acquiring new stuff. But it didn't.

With every move - and I move fairly often - I'd have to worry about the transport of my stuff, worry about whether my new space had adequate storage. I'd have to stress over the fact that I might be moving somewhere with pests that would destroy my stuff. Or that a careless neighbor might leave his water on and damage my stuff.

I have to find new ways to store my stuff when I get settled. And, because I'm a renter and not a homeowner I have to see my stuff and deal with my stuff every single day.

And it's exhausting.

Some might come into my home, look around, and say that I don't have all that much stuff. They might say that my years of eliminating my possessions has been a success. And for some it might be a success. Because I don't have a ton of things. I've downsized to a one bedroom apartment in which me, my guy, and my cat reside. And aside from the weekly buildup of debris, my space does not appear to be cluttered.

But I still feel ruled by my possessions. I still worry over the things that I have to carefully store and maintain and keep and clean. Things that I don't use, though some of those things have meaning.

And I still have that drive to acquire more stuff or new stuff, I am still looking for that one thing that will make my apartment feel like a home, feel complete, look perfect. I am still looking for that mini rush I get by making a purchase. I am still thinking about what new thing I "need."

But thanks to some new insight brought on by some new resources I've very recently discovered (which I'll talk about next blog), I am hoping to break this cycle and find happiness in simplicity, be accepting of my environment, be at peace in my mind.

Because, as I've known in my heart of hearts for quite some time now, happiness does not come from an object. It comes from the people and beings in my life. It comes from doing things that I love.

To be continued...