Becoming “Unpossessed”

One of the big goals of our new adventure is to radically prune our possessions and shift away from the consumerism that drives so much of US society.

Most of us in the US have a ridiculous amount of stuff compared to everyone else in the world. An NPR story from several years ago introduced me to photographer Peter Menzel’s project Material World: A Global Family Portrait – a photo essay of families standing in front of all their possessions. You can imagine how the US families compared to other families. I’m pretty sure that if Menzel had taken a photo of us and our possessions, we would have had the largest pile by far. (By the way, I really like photo #7 because it’s in front of a traditional yurt, which is what we had for housing in our weekend place. Of course, our yurt had radiant floor heating and lovely French doors.)

This post is one in a series that we hope capture what it’s like to let go of our possessions: an effort that is psychologically, emotionally and logistically challenging. But it’s a challenge that we’re looking forward to working through.

Those of you who have been to our house have seen that we’ve collected a lot of interesting items over the years. Lots of art, nice furniture, an amazingly well stocked kitchen and bar, and incredible amounts of miscellaneous and specialized tools and sports equipment. But even if it’s cool, it is still a lot of stuff!

Because Joy and I hate clutter, most items are tucked away or neatly stored and shelved. The house didn’t feel stuffed (to us, at least). But with a 2,100 square foot house we’ve lived in for 26 years, plus a weekend place we owned for 10 years, we accreted a lot of possessions without realizing it.

Here is a smattering of some of the over-the-top possessions we’ve gathered over the years:

  •  I owned fourteen (14!) pairs of jeans. As in, after I donated ten pairs I still owned four pairs. I ended up with so many because I had a “jeans hierarchy”. Jeans that were nice enough to wear to work (which is ironic because I rarely wore jeans to work). Jeans one step down that were nice enough to wear out but not quite nice enough to go to work in. Jeans for bumming around on Saturdays or for light errands. And then jeans for doing heavy chores like yard work or painting. I had this hierarchy for my blue jeans as well as my black jeans. And a whole other set of jeans that lived at our weekend property and were appropriate for the yurt (heavily weighted towards working jeans!).
  • At one point we had more than 35 (!!) different kinds of drinking glasses, including an embarrassing number of different kinds of wine glasses, cocktail glasses, after dinner drink glasses, beer-specific glasses, and also handful of glasses we use for non-alcoholic drinks. And, unbelievably, we actually used them all. I know the photo below looks bad, but, really, we don’t drink that much. Our glass assortment just kind of grew this way over time. Really. Honest.
pictures of glasses
Even after having given away some sets of glasses we’re still at 25 types!
  •  By the time I finished photographing each piece of our art (paintings, lithographs, ceramics and collectibles) I’d taken more than 120 pictures.
  • We had our everyday dishes, our good china set, and my parents’ china set.  (We never tried to do a dinner party for 40 people but if we had, we wouldn’t have had to use paper plates.)
  • Our vinegar shelf represents why I am often overwhelmed when I try to help Joy cook. In our kitchen we have: plain old white (cleaning) vinegar, white wine vinegar, red wine x2, apple cider, balsamic x3 (good, really good, and superb), malt (only for fish n chips), raspberry, red raspberry, French Tarragon, and Spanish Sherry vinegar.  And I couldn’t reach the top shelf.

Now try to imagine reducing everything down so that our possessions will fit into one 12′ x 8′ portable storage unit container. One technique people use when decluttering is to ask themselves, “Have I used this in the past year?” Or, as Marie Kondo asks, “Does it spark joy?” In our case, because we’re going well beyond decluttering and far into downsizing, we ask ourselves, “Is this item worthy of allocating precious storage space?” (In a future post you’ll see that we’re asking similar questions about the gear we’ll be bringing on our bikes.)

How do we go about paring down all these possessions? First, think like a librarian.

Even though I work in a library — Stanford University Libraries, I’m not a librarian.  I don’t even play one on TV.  Real librarians are highly skilled, very smart, dedicated (and way underpaid) folks I’ve been honored to work with the past several years. Having said that, the other day I realized that in order to downsize, Joy and I have to act like librarians at home. We began by cataloging.

Possession TrackingWe created a Google doc where we listed our significant possessions (art, key pieces of furniture, etc). We mutually decided whether something was a “keeper”, something we would like to keep if we could, or something that we could let go (by giving away, donating or selling). We agreed that if one of us felt that something could go but the other person preferred to keep it, we’d try to keep it.

For all of our significant possessions, we photographed the items and used the photos for both tracking and tax deduction purposes. For items of significant value, particularly art that we’re considering donating, we needed to track down all the relevant provenance so we can answer the following kinds of questions: when did we buy it? where? who is the artist? what did it cost? is there additional background information about the piece or the artist? And for two pre-columbian pieces, what is each item’s history as far back as we can track it across all previous owners?

I sometimes refer to what we’re doing as “deaccessioning”, a term I’ve picked up while working with my librarian colleagues. It means to remove an item from the collection. I like that term because it accurately reflects how deeply we are considering each piece and whether it will fit into our future lives.

De-accessioning is not the same as “goodwilling”, wherein you donate an item because you no longer want it or you’re making room for something new. That’s decluttering, akin to giving away spare change: not that hard. No one questions that you’ve taken something to Goodwill, except perhaps to wonder why it took you so long. De-accessioning, on the other hand, means truly letting go. Giving away stuff you still want, still use. Stuff your friends would think you’d be crazy to get rid of.

De-accessioning is really hard. So many of the things we’re parting with have a strong emotional meaning. They remind me of family or friends. I know who gave us this piece as a wedding gift. Or which brother gave that to me as a Christmas gift. Or it’s a collectible that Joy and I bought on one of our fabulous trips. Furniture that we still like a lot: pieces we spent years searching for until we found exactly the right style. Beautiful, well crafted objects that we still enjoy using, like all our great kitchen tools.  And each time one of those pieces got carried out the door by a family member or friend, we were really happy for them. And it made us happy to know that a particular item was going to be used by someone we care about (rather than some stranger buying it on eBay) and that our friends and family will think about us when they cook with it, or sit in it, or admire its artistic value. But I’ve got to admit that I was often quietly heart broken to see some of the stuff I really like go out the door. But it’s been getting easier to let go, and it’s starting to be freeing.

In upcoming posts about becoming “unpossessed” we’ll talk about what we’re finding hardest to give up, about our strategies for dealing with our art, and our philosophy for how we disperse our belongings.

In the meantime, I’m headed back to the garage to sort through the tools. I really freakin’ don’t know what some of them are or why I bought them. Or how the hell we ended up with nine, NINE! measuring tapes.

4 thoughts on “Becoming “Unpossessed”

  1. You two are going about this process in such a measured, thoughtful way. It still sounds painful. I’m glad the “freeing” part is starting to kick in.

    Decluttering is an on going (ever going) process with me. What you’re doing is so much bigger. I’m feeling inspired!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Or, as Marie Kondo asks, ‘Does it spark joy?’ …we ask ourselves, ‘Is this item worthy of allocating precious storage space?'”
    Something that I’ve struggled with is the emotional attachment to things, especially things, gifts, memorable items relating to my parents.

    Is this how you conquered that or were there additional things that you did?
    “[A] particular item was going to be used by someone we care about… and that our friends and family will think about us when they cook with it, or sit in it, or admire its artistic value.”

    Thank you


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