All Stuffed Up and Nowhere to Go

Author and spiritual teacher Ram Dass spoke eloquently once about the very human challenge in pursuing a life of non-attachment. Even as he worked with these practices on his own journey, he found himself moving cartons of his stuff in a giant rental truck everywhere he went. He’d be driving down a highway, chanting and meditating on non-attachment, and then he’d look in the rearview mirror and remember he was driving a bright orange U-Haul. Sometimes, he’d say, laughing, he wouldn’t even unpack the boxes—even forgetting what was in them. They would stay sealed from place to place, but still he’d bring this stuff everywhere he went.

One day, in a moment of enlightenment, he decided to free himself of his possessions and put everything out on the curb for the garbage truck. But then he found himself out there in the middle of the night, sorting and making a “to be saved” pile. He pulled out pictures of Neem Karoli Baba, rationalizing, “It’s not good to throw out pictures of your guru, right?”

Everyone laughs when he tells this story because we do the same thing. Although we might not have pictures of our Indian guru, we have poor, blurry pictures of our kids, musty books we never read, holiday decorations we no longer use, and clothes that haven’t seen the light of day since 1980.

Would your stuff fit inside a $39-a-day in-town rental van? Or would you need something more on the order of an eighteen-wheeler? At one count, there were more than 50,000 self-storage facilities in the United States. Who’s filling all these storage units?

I once had enough stuff to fill a four-bedroom house, a sun porch, a cellar, a carriage shed, and a three-story barn, with a few random things strewn on the lawn. (And that doesn’t count the junk I kept in my car.)

This farmhouse was built around 1710. The funny thing about the house was that there were no closets. Why? Because the people who lived there probably only had one or two pair of overalls or dresses and one suit for church and who needs a whole closet for that?

Because we had no good closet space, we had four dressers in the bedroom. FOUR. Keep in mind that two of them were falling apart and two only had three narrow drawers each, but still, we had literally 23 drawers for our clothes. When I finally cleaned out the drawers, we could have clothed an entire hamlet. Why did it get so ridiculous? Why didn’t I clean it out sooner?

Well, for one thing, I am a spoiled American who doesn’t get the concept of living with simple, bare necessities met. I always want more. That’s part of what makes me human.

But second, who has the time to cull down a life? Just this week it took me an hour to go through my son’s third grade paperwork (Note: he is in seventh grade now). I decided to attack the third grade Rubbermaid tub and reduce it to a manila folder. So (without using one of the three calculators in my desk), I can tell you that it will take me about seven more hours to finish the other grades (if you include preschool and kindergarten, which of course I do, because I have those, too).

It’s much easier to just keep adding to the piles, isn’t it?

When we downsized and emptied the barn that had been in the family for way too many generations to count, we filled eight 30-yard dumpsters. Do you know how big a 30-yard dumpster is? It holds 30 cubic yards of waste, with dimensions about 22 feet x 8 feet x 6 feet. Waste removal professionals recommend using a 30-yard dumpster when demolishing an entire garage. So we basically threw away the equivalent of eight garages.

And that was after giving stuff to goodwill, recycling what we could, and having several yard sales. I think about the landfill pile we created just with those dumpster loads, and I wince.

Of course, we inherited much of that stuff. But isn’t that always how it goes? We don’t always keep just our own stuff—other people give us their stuff, and then we keep that too.

Before I go any further, for those of you who live off the grid, sew your own clothes, and are shrieking in horror, that was years ago. I am much more evolved now. Since I downsized, my life and my possessions now fit in about 1200 square feet of space. (Except for those six boxes of Christmas decorations, the fake Balsam tree, tires, and air conditioner that I keep in my friend’s storage unit, shhhhh!)

I have also adopted the philosophy that it’s a good idea to move at least every three years. In the process of moving, you’re forced to consider if you want to keep everything that you have. I find when I move that I am always inspired to make trips to the transfer station and transfer a good chunk of my stuff elsewhere.

When my friend Ginny did a major spring-cleaning of her house years ago, she used some simple rules in deciding what to save and what to toss. She kept something only 1) if it had been used within the last six months; 2) if it had sentimental value; 3) if it had financial value and so she did not want to throw it away. Everything else was tossed or given away. Wow—if I used those rules, I could probably cut my stuff down by 45 percent.

What about those VHS tapes that I haven’t watched since 1992? The perfume that has lost its scent? The old magazines that I feel obliged to read because I killed trees in wanting them, the hamper filled with sheets that I haven’t pulled out in a year and a half, or those drawers of stubby pencils whose erasers have fossilized into solid rock?

It’s time to do another clearing. I need to smudge myself of more of my stuff.

One of my favorite artists, Brian Andreas, who I wrote about a few weeks ago, beautifully summed up this dilemma in his StoryPeople drawing #1764. It reads: “I’d have lots more stuff by now, he told me, if I didn’t like grabbing more than I like keeping.” The picture is of a curious creature madly clutching things in his arms. Kind of looks like me.