When Tom and I got married, we had about 32 cents to our names and our worldly possessions were limited to the clothes on our backs, a trunkload of wedding gifts, and a few boxes of memorabilia stored in our parents’ basements. Using my meager, just-out-of-college income, we began slowly acquiring the things we needed–a used futon (after ours was stolen) so we could sleep, fold-out foam chairs so we could sit, a TV so we could keep up with world events, and a bookcase from IKEA so we could display our beloved books (the only things besides our diplomas to show what we had been doing for the past four years). We dreamed of the day when we could buy the things we needed without making a such a deep dent in our checking account and started frequenting garage sales while we bided our time.
As the years passed our income rose and we bought more stuff. We felt good about our status as wage earners, but the thought that we might one day be penniless again always loomed in the back of our minds, and as a result, we were unwilling to get rid of anything. Gradually we accumulated mountains of clothing, stockpiles of kitchen gadgets, and enough toys to start our own Toys ‘R’ Us.
Our attachment to stuff was only exacerbated by our housing situation. For the first 12 years of our marriage we inhabited small apartments, a room in Tom’s parents’ basement, and two houses, each smaller than our biggest apartment. You’d think with such a limit on space, we’d have to limit our possessions as well, but our small abodes simply encouraged me to become a master of storage. I bought dozens of plastic storage bins, packed them carefully, and kept them meticulously organized in garages and storage units, depending upon where we were living at the time.
When the moving truck pulled up to our miniature house, circa 1948, in Santa Monica, the crew figured the job would be quick and the load light. Both crew and neighbors watched in awe, however, as the crates, bins, boxes, and containers I had stuffed into every possible crevice of the house emerged to fill the entire truck. Tom oversaw the unloading in Georgia and directed all the long-term storage items to be deposited in the basement of our new 5,000-square foot house. There they sat, unused, for a few more years as the upper levels filled with more and more stuff.
Finally in 2004, my friend Paula (of Buenos Aires fame) came on the scene and helped me begin tackling what had become “my dirty little secret.” Two years and about 50 trips to Goodwill later, I finally felt I had cleared my life of the mental clutter and physical burden all our stuff had come to represent. I left a well-organized, streamlined basement and attic of which I was so proud I thought I should charge admission and give tours. I was excited to return home to all this order and organizational perfection in July, but when I arrived I found our housesitters had moved the contents of one half of the basement into the other and within days the little kids had dumped and scattered every toy I had saved.
Once again Paula raced to the rescue and over the past few weeks we have reclaimed the basement and made yet another pass at purging stuff from my life. I sent her away last night with a car full of toys headed to children who will appreciate them and mothers who probably won’t begrudge them. My trash can sits full of bags of broken playthings and consumer detritus that somehow escaped my first 2-yearlong pass.
If you ever wondered why I LOVE being on the road so much and why I never wanted to come home, “stuff” is one of main reasons. Getting out of my house and my country allowed me to live with only the possessions I could carry on my back. Since Tom and the kids were held to the same rule, I didn’t have to deal with the whirlwind of their stuff either. As we traveled, I didn’t have to waste time organizing stuff, picking up stuff, fixing stuff, buying stuff, or worrying about stuff. At home “stuff” weighs me down, while on the road, I was free to enjoy my family and the amazing places I was visiting unencumbered.
I dream every day of leaving all the “stuff” that remains behind and living a simpler, more experience-based existence like the one we had on the road. For now, we’ve devoted ourselves to acquiring less, getting rid of more, and finding ways to travel for longer and more often. One return RTW traveler we talked to returned over a decade ago and to this day shuns stuff to the extent that he rides a skateboard to work and operates only in cash, no credit cards. With four kids, we can’t go that far just yet, but it sure does sound tempting.