At age 26, I felt trapped. I’d left my job as an embattled high school teacher, only to spend my days in a depressing cubicle editing technical articles. I spent nights cooking food for my husband—little of which I ate, because I was supposed to be on a diet.
When I decided to attend graduate school in English literature, life became exciting again. Writers living and dead spoke to my heart, urging me to, in Henry David Thoreau’s words, “live the life you have always imagined.”
My husband said I was becoming too idealistic. Life, after all, was about working, buying a house, building a retirement.
I had signed onto this, but suddenly I didn’t want it anymore.
When we divorced, I was 27. I had to get rid of what wouldn’t fit into my studio apartment, which meant most everything. Influenced by Walt Whitman’s words that humans were the only animals “demented with the mania of owning things,” I called Goodwill.
Two guys hauled away our Mikasa china, Oneida silverware and Waterford crystal—wedding gifts we’d hardly used. They also took most of our furniture, including our bed.
I planned to sleep on a fold-out couch next to my shelf stuffed with books and my word processor. I wanted, as Thoreau urged, to “simplify, simplify.”
Three years later, when I finished graduate school and spontaneously accepted a job to teach in Japan, I had once again accumulated a lot of stuff. I sold almost all of my belongings at a yard sale—including my car. I stashed a few boxes of books and personal memorabilia at my parents’ house, taking to Asia just two suitcases filled with clothes.
My friends said I was brave. But it didn’t feel like bravery; it felt like an urgent escape.
Once again, I’d felt stuck in a bad relationship, this time with a boyfriend who wove in and out of a dark depression.
I’d thought getting rid of my belongings meant getting rid of my problems, but neither time was that the case.
Yes, I experienced a temporary sense of immense freedom. But soon my familiar angst returned. Who was I? What did I want to do with my life?
Fast forward 20 years. At age 50, I decided to retire early from the university where I taught. I enjoyed my job, but it felt like time to make a change so I could focus on writing and traveling. My husband of three years was all for it.
As we talked about the possibilities, we decided on something radical. What if we had no home for a while? No mortgage or rent would mean more money to travel.
For the third time, I embarked on getting rid of almost everything I owned. This time, though, I did it thoughtfully.
We gave our camping equipment to a friend who loved the outdoors, our china to our friend who threw the most parties, and lots of our furniture to our bachelor friend who lived in a nearly-empty house.
Our plants went to our friend with the greenest thumb, and the piano to a friend who wanted to learn to play.
Some items we put on Craigslist. Our snow tires went to a grandfather who was thrilled to be able to give them to his son, now that they were no longer estranged. A table I’d inherited from my parents was scooped up by a guy who ran a sober living home for men.
What I owned the most were books. I gave my signed Gloria Steinem to my most feminist friend, piles of poetry to my poet-laureate friend and mounds of self-help books to a friend who wanted to change her life.
I posted on Facebook that I had four yearbooks from 1976-1980 that I’d managed to haul around all these years. A woman I vaguely remembered responded right away that she’d love them; a spiteful ex-boyfriend had burned hers in a bonfire.
This time, I wasn’t carelessly or spitefully tossing my stuff. Almost every item found a good home—even the remainders that we sold at a yard sale.
The act of shedding our belongings connected us to others, in some small way contributing to their stories, their lives.
We weren’t trapped. We were just moving onto the next chapter of our lives.
Author: Kate Evans
Editor: Toby Israel
Image: Author’s Own // Pixabay