Does Your Stuff Free You Or Own You?

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The delicate red ceramic felt precious to my fingers as I swirled the warm suds in the ikat-painted bowl. Standing at the white sink with an electric light over my head, it felt like a privilege, to wash such a beautiful bowl, which I had just eaten out of. And it was—a privilege.

I’d never really been one to enjoy washing dishes before. But it had been a while since I’d had a real dish to wash, and a proper sink to do it in. A year and half, to be exact. I’d been living out of a van, traveling around the West with my boyfriend, living out of a duffel bag and three drawers: one for climbing gear, one for cooking items and one for random stuff like bike shoes, books and magazines. Washing dishes had been a pretty different affair, usually involving swishing water from a big jug into one of our three multipurpose plastic bowls and then tossing the grey water out into the grass or rocks wherever the van was parked.

The thing about living out of a purposefully simplistic life, is it’s both limiting and freeing at the same time. You have to fully consider the function of each item in your life before inviting it in. Does this new water bottle work better than the one I have? Is it lighter? More compact or better insulating? If not, better pass. Does that cute shirt match a variety of things I already own? Can I wear it a couple of times a week without washing it? If not, better just admire it on the rack and walk on.

So when we moved into an apartment this spring, I found myself going through the same process as we unpacked. I’d slice open the moving tape on a box, excited to pull out things that had sat in a dusty storage unit for the past 18 months. I pulled out all the tea towels, silverware, canvas sneakers, cotton hoodies and hardbound books that hadn’t made the cut to go with us in the van, sometimes forgetting what I’d kept and feeling pleasantly surprised. But we’d chosen to rent a small one-bedroom apartment—hoping to save money and keep things simple to allow for more freedom to travel—so the process of critically examining each item for function and form carried over from the van days.

Sometimes I think we end up with more stuff than we even want, simply because we never make the effort to consider our possessions. And before we know it, our closets and storage units full of stuff start to possess a certain gravity or power over us. As I washed the glasses and plates coming out of the the cardboard boxes, I thought about the friends I’d recently visited in Seattle. They live on a 30-foot sailboat, and when we phoned to say we’d stop by, they said they had wine to share, but if we wanted some we should probably bring our own glasses because they only had two cups. Stepping down into the cabin of the boat, I felt the faultless lightness of being that comes with owning very little. It felt contagious at the time, but weeks later as I sorted through all the stuff I’d kept in storage, I began to feel the gravity of stuff again.

As I gradually emptied all the boxes, adding more and more to the giveaway pile and trying to pare down to the very basics, that lightness began to come back—and with it, a distinct sense of value for the few curated items I’d kept. The perfectly-sized red painted bowl that I’d use just about every day. The thrift store mug with the Nordic flower on it that makes me happy just to hold. The hand-stitched tea towel from my Grandma.

It felt like the less stuff I had, the more I enjoyed each item, instead of feeling weighed or tied down by it. Instead of feeling hung up by chores, the tiny acts of washing my beloved coffee mug or my grandma’s towel—or sorting out climbing gear after a trip—have become cherished rituals.

Maybe trimming down our possessions to things we love because they help us do things we love—like drinking coffee or climbing mountains—can free us to enjoy the amazing experiences in life, instead of feeling held back by the stuff we own.

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