Letting Go of Things

We have a long history of trying to get rid of things. While we’ve made some progress over the years, we never seemed to get on top of it.

Deciding to move into one 16 by 18 foot room in a community forced us to grapple with our relationship with things in a much more radical way. Both of us are a little sentimental and have pack rat tendencies. We never bought things just to decorate the house. Rather, our house was decorated with things that had meaning for us – mementos from trips and times together with family and friends, gifts from people we love, things we inherited from the households of our parents. And then there were the books! And the art on the walls!  Sorting what to give away, what would go into the room with us and what would go to storage invited us to struggle with how much we need, what we value most and what role stuff plays in our lives.

The furniture was easy. Our room would hold a queen-size bed, two dressers, two desks, a love seat with foot rests, a couple of bedside tables and some bookshelves. We put a little bit of furniture that belonged to our parents in storage for when we leave this house. The rest was donated or sold. Here’s what was hard: books, art, knick knacks, files and gadgets (Bill) and craft supplies (Carol). What’s crammed into our room and the storage unit reflects what was hard.

In the end we gave away far more than we kept. Some of the letting go hurt at the moment. What helped was trying to remember that everything we have comes to us as gift. It is ours to use for a while and then needs to get passed on. Focusing on giving things to others rather than giving things up shifted the energy. For those things that we valued most we tried to find the people who would most use/need/appreciate them. Probably the most fun we had with it was during our going away party. We invited each person to pick something they would like to have. There was joy in seeing what they picked and in knowing someone else would enjoy what we were willing to let go of.

The best surprise and biggest learning was that as things left our house we felt lighter, freer, happier. So far, we haven’t missed a single thing we gave away. That feeling of lightness makes us want to explore letting go of more things. Despite the radical downsizing, we still have work to do.

11 thoughts on “Letting Go of Things

  1. Fascinating project, Bill. Your description of how you accumulated all the stuff sounds remarkably close to home, as does your early start at marriage and grandchildren now. Will follow with interest!

    • Thanks, Jon. And as you know, our daughter, Kate, and I continue to follow your good work at the Pulitzer Center closely!

  2. What a wonderful idea at your going-away party (what’s the opposite of a house warming?) to ask friends to choose something to take with them. I always wonder when I drop stuff off at Goodwill who will make use of it and what that person may be like. You know the answer to that.

  3. When Jackee and I moved from Willow Glen to our current house we did a major downsizing, even though our new house is 30% bigger than that house. We gave most of our furniture to a “Furniture Bank” charity, helped a couple of neighborhood kids furnish first apartments and sold maybe $500 worth of stuff. We did 5-6 trips to a local charity that supports Stanford Hospital and about as many to the Goodwill. We did three “Freecycle” events where I piled stuff at the end of the driveway with a sign that said “Freestuff, help yourself.” (see photo at the link below). I filled a 90 gallon recycling bin 3-4 times with old work papers. We sold the few books that had value and gave away hundreds to charities and by putting them at the end of the driveway.

    We kept only the books, artwork and other stuff that was meaningful to us. There were a few moments of pain as a couple of things left, but nothing serious.

    It has now been three years and there have maybe been three times when we wished we had something that we gave away. Like Carol and Bill we like not having all that stuff.

    We did buy some new furniture for the new house.

    In the interim we have continued to unload stuff that does not get used and by Thanksgiving I plan to do a major clear out of garage which has several large, stuffed cabinets that have rarely been opened since we moved.

    Jackee and I do not have kids and we feel good that no one will have to get rid of 30-40 years of accumulation when we are gone. Neither will we if we have to go to assisted living someday.

    April 24

  4. Bill and Carol: I admire your adventurous spirit and suspect that you will find a way to turn your journal into a book that I’m already eager to read. I had a condo calamity (serious water damage) and am now moving into a reconstructed den. Like you, I am parting with accumulated treasures (things) that no longer have a resting place. It ain’t easy, but like you, I feel a small feeling of liberation when I truck the old stuff to a place where it can become someone else’s new stuff.

  5. I tend to cling to my sentimental stuff, but have found over the years that when someone admires something of mine, if I immediately say, “Please take it,” and they do — I feel ultimately good. ‘Twould be interesting to speak with someone who has lost everything in a fire about how they then define themselves….probably much as we all do when we travel, carrying only a few clothes and books. Simple!

    • Wow, Susan – what a brave practice giving people things they admire. Not sure I could do it, but I think I might try.

  6. One thing I failed to mention. I did digitize some of the stuff that had sentimental value but no place in the new house. I took pictures of some meaningful decorative items. I scanned some of the paper stuff that was meaningful. The images are part of a digital frame that has over 8,000 personal pictures on it and we get to see them in a regular rotation.

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