I took a deep breath and stepped inside what hours ago been the home of a dear friend. The lingering intensity of the smoke smell created the impression that the house was still smoldering. The worn wood floors already warped with the water damage, and the blackened walls, combined with the boards we’d just finished putting over the broken windows, made the interior murky and dark. On my right, just inside the door, was the floor-to-ceiling bookcase I’d often envied. All of those wonderful books, reduced now to charred corpses with unreadable spines and disintegrating, water-logged pages. Irretrievable.
Years later, reflecting on the emotional and spiritual toll the fire had taken on her, my friend told me, “I realized, after the fire, that my things owned me, not the other way around. I won’t ever let that happen again.”
Discarding the Stuff that Held Me Hostage
I’ve been on a journey of…well, discovery as I prepare myself for living in a yurt. The yurt itself is simply an approach to bringing my lived values into better alignment with my stated values. I’ve always perceived myself as someone who valued simplicity and sustainability.
Then I take a look around at all my stuff. And I realize I’m being held hostage to modern convenience and all of its material trappings.
So the past year or so, I’ve been focusing more on discarding my excess belongings. There are a lot of them. Some of these belongings are things I picked up because they were “cute” or “fun” — but served no purpose except to collect dust. Others have been gifts from friends and family — highly appreciated but loved less for themselves than for the givers. Still others have simply been duplicates — the outward manifestations of a scarcity mindset, where one of an item is never enough because…what if? After watching T.E.D. Talks about minimalism and reading blog posts about throwing stuff away and even purchasing a book, I finally found an approach that worked for me.
I was a Tasmanian devil, stuff flying in every direction and landing in boxes for donation or to be gifted to friends and family members who said they wanted some of the things I discarded. I even sold a few major items — yay, me! It was glorious. Freeing. With every box I carried to my truck, I felt lighter. A minimalist lifestyle was soon to be mine!
Then I slammed right into a brick wall: my books.
The Things We Own and the Things that Own Us
My books mean more to me than some members of my family. (Sorry, Uncle George, but I can’t keep you. I’ve found you a nice, new family in Newark. Here’s your suitcase. Pretend we never met.) In fact, some of my books have moved hundreds of miles with me — twice — because I couldn’t part with them. And I’m not talking about a box or two of books. This is a book collection that has its own zip code. (Slight exaggeration.)
From Arthurian legend to sustainable living; from paper-craft to poetry; from contemporary Native American literature to philosophy and yoga and drawing and cookbooks…the list of topics and genres covers a broad territory of human thought and activity. My books define and describe me; they entertain and inform me; they ground me. They’re an important part of my identity. They evoke emotions that no electronic version can mimic, much less replace. I love the smell of them, the weight of them in my hands, the way I can thumb through their pages and rediscover them again and again. I’ve made notes in many of them, conversations with myself that remind me of who I’ve been and by what paths I became the woman I am today.
My books aren’t just “things,” I thought. They’re an extension of me. My books…are my history.
It was this last insight that provided me with the perspective I needed to let them go. History is important — we need it to ground ourselves and to connect with vital parts of who we are. But I’m not building a history. I’m building a future, and I need to find other (less space-consuming) ways to stay connected with my emotional past. Why was I carrying around the books I’d collected for the PhD I’ll never finish? Why did I hang onto that “must-read” when I knew I didn’t want to, so I never would? How many of those gardening books did I really refer to — and why was I keeping the ones that weren’t already dog-eared and dirty and worn with years of use? Did I really need to hang onto all that Shakespeare, or could I simply Google the bon mot I wanted to quote, when the need arose? (Yes, I’m serious. Don’t judge.)
Slowly, I began unwinding the tentacles that were strangling my heart and freeing myself of the weight of my literary history.
Thinking Inside the (Moving) Box
As the weeks went on, I sold or donated the books I realized I no longer loved — or, in fact, never did love. The books that still had meaning to me but no longer had a real use, I gave to friends I thought would enjoy them. (And they can feel free to donate or sell them as they choose.) I’m setting a target for only a few boxes of books instead of the library I’ve been lugging along with me every time I move. Every time I hold a book in my hand, I try to separate myself from it and focus on how I feel about it, all by itself.
I still have shelves and shelves to empty, but my paring-down now makes me more intentional about how I define words like love and need. I’m learning to hang onto what I truly treasure, those things I retain for themselves and not for some perceived obligation or the wistful memory of a path not followed.
I’m learning about traveling light, without the drag of a past I no longer need. I want to own my things, not be owned by them.
This post originally appeared on my creative writing blog, Small Conceits. Because my journey to what will become my mountain home involves a different kind of storytelling, I’ve moved these posts here to retain and extend the narrative without muddying the waters on Small Conceits.