Paring It Down: Reflections while packing to move


Packing in Progress

One week left until we’re out of this apartment.  I’ve moved a fair amount in my adult life, and I’ve grown to enjoy it.  (I mentioned this to a friend recently who looked at me all sideways and said, “NOBODY likes moving.”)  The longest I’ve spent in any one place was the three years I lived in an attic apartment in North Buffalo, and that was also the most difficult move: three years is ample time to accumulate a heck of a lot of STUFF.  I don’t have as much to pack this time around.  Even so, I find that this process is a great time to reflect on what I actually need in my life.

Stuff is a problem.  Life requires stuff.  Unfortunately, sometimes life requires stuff that you don’t end up using very often, and it spends a lot of time just sitting around, taking up space in your house.  I’m sorting things based on a loose rule that whatever I haven’t used in a year needs to go.  (There are, of course, some exceptions.)  But where should it go?  I get frustrated with all this STUFF lying around, but it would be irresponsible to just throw it away.  Material goods are problematic partially because of the duty I feel to steward them.  I try to deal with it in a mindful way.  Whatever I don’t use, I pass on to other people who will appreciate it.  I offer things to my friends, and I take a lot of things to my favorite thrift store, Amvets.  Even they seem overwhelmed by objects.  Their donation area often looks like the aftermath of an explosion.  Nevertheless, I usually see the stuff I donate end up on their shelves eventually.  (Kudos to Amvets for keeping track of it all!)

I always come back to the idea of a Stuff Bank.  I would really like one to exist someday.  It would be kind of like a tool library, but in addition to tools it would just have an incredibly broad variety of random things people end up needing.  Maybe there would be a small fee for membership, but after that it would work like a library, where you can check things out and return them by a due date, and there would be fines for late, lost, or broken items.  There are so many things I only need once in a while that I would be happy to borrow from a Stuff Bank: lawn mower, vacuum cleaner, iron and ironing board, blender, camping gear, pet cages…  Think about it.  Why does everyone on the block need their own lawn mower when they use it maybe once a week?  Why not just have one lawn mower and pass it around?  Because a) the tragedy of the commons, and b) capitalism depends on people buying shit they don’t actually need to keep its gear$ turning.

Packing up a room full of crafting supplies also got me thinking about simplifying my life in terms of the ways I choose to spend my time.  Crafting is a tough one.  I really enjoy making things—these days, mostly cards, crocheted hats and mittens, and nature-inspired jewelry—but I don’t need to keep all the things that I make, and I don’t even have enough people to give them to for holidays and such.  I tried to set up an Etsy and turn it into a small side-business but I’ve only sold two things in the year it’s been in existence.  Attending local craft shows and artisan fairs is more productive but requires a bigger time commitment.  Supplies cost money and you always end up with more than you need, so then it takes up space in your house along with your fifty half-finished projects.  Is it really worth it?  I go back and forth.  I end up crafting mostly in the colder months and spend the rest of the year focused on other things, which seems like a reasonable compromise—for now.

And while I’m weighing whether crafting is a good use of my time and energy, I would be remiss not to examine the biggest fucking waste of those resources in my life: Facebook.  I hate Facebook So. Fucking. Much.  I’m pretty sure there’s some kind of demon on the other end of all the wires that feeds on my soul, and Facebook is the straw it uses to suck it out.  Like many other people, I think about deleting my account on a regular basis, but unfortunately I can’t get past how useful it is for certain things like finding out about events, polling your friends, and crowd-sourcing the sex of your house mice or the names of plants you find on hikes.  I think, “Well, instead of deleting it I can just exercise greater self-control by only logging in every few days and limiting the amount of time I allow myself to spend scrolling down the news feed.”  The self-control thing never works.  That damned infinitely-scrolling news feed always sucks me back in, and I always end up feeling terrible about myself after seeing how great everyone else’s life is.  I tell myself I’m being unreasonable, but it doesn’t help.  Facebook: it may not be a waste of space, but it sure as shit is a waste of time and emotional energy.  I’m hoping that when we set up the new apartment, I can find a way to make it really inconvenient for me to use my computer.  My theory is that if I have to go to more effort to get to Facebook, I’ll find a better way to fill my spare time.

Throughout my life, I have found it useful—if kind of weird and uncomfortable—to periodically reassess my values and let go of what no longer serves me, even if it is something that previously brought me much joy.  Most of these practices have been fine initially, but I get too intense and obsessive about them, and they become more of a burden than a benefit.  I can think of several examples off-hand:

When I was in middle school, I would spend all week looking forward to Friday night, when I would be glued to the TV watching ABC’s “TGIF Block Party” programming.  The highlight for me was always Sabrina the Teenage Witch.  After listening to a sermon at Mass about relinquishing worldly things that distract us from God, I chose to give up my favorite show for Lent.  A few weeks in, I realized that I didn’t even care much about the show, and planning my week around catching the new episode was more trouble than it was worth, so I never went back to watching it.  Incidentally, I still feel like this about TV shows to this day: I don’t really like to watch them because they just keep going, and I don’t need that kind of time commitment.

I had a crush on a different boy in my class every year from about ages 10 to 13.  When I was 13, it was a quiet boy at my lunch table who always brought a book.  Since he never spoke, I could imagine anything about him that I wanted to, so I ascribed to him all the personality traits I wanted in a boyfriend.  Then I got kind of obsessed: I would think about him all the time and keep track of when I saw him in the hallway, so I ended up walking to class certain ways to maximize the odds of running into him—things like that.  My life was really boring at the time, so I guess it gave me a way to occupy my brain.  When I came back to school in the fall to start ninth grade, I saw him in the hall one day, and when I got home, I suddenly and consciously decided: no more.  It was pointless.  I was done.

Ahh, Barbies.  I could say a lot about Barbies.  I had them throughout my childhood, and the ways I played with them changed as I grew.  (I feel like someone could do a really interesting psychological study on the ways kids play with Barbies.)  When I was in middle school, I had approximately zero friends, as you may have gathered from these anecdotes—but my Barbies had very rich and interesting lives.  At some point they moved outside and became survivalists.  I made them clothes out of fabric scraps, built them houses and furniture out of sticks and leaves and rocks, and left them out the woods to brave the elements.  I made up soap-operatic storylines about their relationships inspired by my avid reading of Sweet Valley books.  They made “preserves” out of berries and salt mashed together in film canisters, and they suffered the occasional squirrel attack.  (Limbs were lost.)  I had to go out to the woods pretty often to check on the Barbies, move their storylines along, and make repairs to their houses.  It was a lot of fun, but it was very time-consuming.  When I started the tenth grade, just as I had done with my old crush the previous year, I decided that it was time to let this go.  The day I made that decision, I packed the dolls away for good, and their houses were gradually reclaimed by the woods.

Throughout high school and into college, I kept wall calendars.  At first I just wrote upcoming events on them, but as I found myself trying to use them as a record of what I had done on previous days, I started editing them retroactively.  This evolved into writing down everything I had done at the end of every day in a weird sort of shorthand to fit in a tiny square.  I did this for SEVEN YEARS.  I became really attached to the idea of having a written record of everything I had done on every day of my life—just in case.  I would frequently look back at past years’ calendars to see what I’d done on this date back then.  Sometime in college, though, I decided I was being ridiculously anal-retentive, and the effort it took to keep up with this weird practice was not worth what I was actually getting out of it.  So I let it go.

More recently in my life, I’ve realized that I can get really obsessive about researching the history of local buildings.  I’m willing to spend hours upon hours combing through old newspapers and city directories to find information about the lives of people who used to live where I or my friends live now.  It’s interesting, and I enjoy it, but do I enjoy it enough to justify the MASSIVE time expenditure?  Mostly the answer is no.  Maybe on some super rainy, cold, boring day, I’ll delve into the history of my new place of residence, but I’m not really chomping at the bit to do it.

Finally: pet mice.  I really got a kick out of keeping my house mice as pets over the winter.  However, I ended up with five separate mouse cages in my house that each needed to be cleaned once a week.  It was insane.  I freed the house mice in early April, thinking that I would miss them and would probably adopt a real pet mouse now that I had all the supplies… but so far, it turns out that I don’t miss them at all.  Despite all of the enjoyment they brought me over the winter, from my present vantage point, keeping pet mice just seems like a huge waste of time.  It surprises me sometimes how quickly my feelings about things can change—but when it comes to simplifying my life, once I decide I’m done with something, it turns out, and I am really, profoundly, well and truly DONE.

This is pretty key to my life philosophy: sometimes there is value in quitting things boldly and spectacularly, with no warning and no remorse.  Society often discourages us from being “quitters.”  It’s easy to fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy, thinking that we’ve already invested so much time and energy into something that we really ought to follow through—but we don’t have to.  There’s always a choice.  In big ways and in small, sometimes dropping everything and turning on your heel is really the best thing you can do.

I think I have always had certain ascetic tendencies, perhaps as a result of my strict Catholic upbringing.  When I was eleven or twelve, I gave all my toys to the Goodwill, taking Matthew 19:24 to heart: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”  (Of course I missed them later, and then I felt guilty for missing them.)  I wore the same cargo jeans and hoodie for an entire semester in college, then wondered why I couldn’t get a date—ha.  I periodically guilt myself for indulging in tea and chocolate since they cost a lot, have to be imported from far away, and are purely for pleasure (not actually necessary for existence).  (My compromise is buying only fair-trade and buying much less of them than I would if I wasn’t buying fair-trade.)

For many years, starting sometime in college, I’ve gone through cycles of dressing to be noticed.  I don’t mean dressing sexily, but rather wearing bright colors, crazy homemade bellbottoms and hippie skirts, and braiding feathers and ribbons into my hair.  It was an attempt to break through the natural invisibility cloak of my overly-reserved personality by non-verbally signaling, “Hey, I might be interesting!  Please talk to me!”  I can’t say that it ever had much of an effect.

I gave a lot of those clothes to Amvets this spring.  My strategy is shifting: these days, I find I would rather be comfortably camouflaged.  I slouch around the city in cargo pants and loose shirts in neutral colors.  So far, I haven’t had to deal with any of the usual unwanted curbside comments in this attire (Smile!  Hey beautiful!  Lookin good!).  (I realize people might do this with good intentions, but mostly what I want in public spaces is to be left alone.  I’m not parading around town for strangers’ pleasure, and I don’t give a shit whether they approve of my body.)  Am I making a concession to a misogynistic society that views women first as bodies and second as people?  How would I dress if I didn’t have to worry about anyone else’s reaction?

I honestly have no idea.  I can’t even conceive of such a situation.  It’s like asking, “What would you want if it weren’t for all of the outside influences that contribute to how you view the world?”  No one can know that.  I do know that I feel comfortable with this boring and pragmatic approach to fashion at the moment because it allows me to do what I want and to pass unharassed through public spaces.  It also, perhaps, gives people less information about me visually, so to know anything about me, they’d be forced to talk to me and connect on a human level.  I feel like I’m dressed for the journey, a wandering pilgrim on a quest with no time for frippery.  I’m trying to narrow my focus to what’s important to me right now: reading and writing, spending time outdoors, connecting with friends, and incubating plans for later hatchment.