Stuff

After Rebecca got the job offer and agreed to start work in one month’s time, we decided, “Okay, we’ll just get rid of our stuff, put some in storage, sell the house, sell our cars and move there.” Shouldn’t be too hard. Because of the price of shipping stuff, we’d each only bring two or three suitcases with us on the plane, and maybe ship a few boxes. Okay, ready, let’s get started.

We didn’t have work visas, a necessary component of the equation of being allowed into the country, but had mailed off our applications the day after Rebecca had accepted the job. If we didn’t get the work visas, I’m not sure what we’d do but it was one of those things where you just have to take a chance, go forward and trust it will work out.

So putting that aside for now, we focused on packing. But what you don’t realize is just how much stuff you have. Let me repeat that—you just don’t realize how much stuff you have. And we didn’t have much stuff compared to our friends. Stuff just seems to stick to you as you traverse through life particularly if you have a relatively large sized house as we did to store it. Junk mostly. It’s like friends or relatives you bring home with you and they decide to stay with you—forever. And now all this stuff fills every cranny of your home, each and every room, engulfing the crawl space under the house, the garage, the storage shed, bulging out of cabinets and spilling out onto the floor when you open a closet door.

I’ve seen books with titles like “Declutter Your Life” and “Simplify—Living With Less.” We needed the more severe, drastic advanced versions of these books. Or more likely a book titled “How To Get Rid of Everything—Quickly!”

I remember when my brother had lived in a small house on a farm in the country. He made it a policy that before they got anything new, they had to throw away or get rid or something of equal size from the house. This seemed like a sound policy, except throwing away something meant heaving it into a pit a hundred yards away and out of sight from the house. Actually lots of people out in the country seem to use this method. His house did remain uncluttered but after a while his pit had become a small landfill. A sound yet flawed policy. And unfortunately there were no nearby pits in our neighborhood we could use.

We started by sorting through our stuff. As I went through my stuff, I put it in three categories: want to keep, get rid of and not sure. Sometimes there was a fourth category. Too heavy. Didn’t feel like lifting it or moving right now. Or sometimes a fifth category: pretend I don’t see it and leave it for Rebecca. Many of the things in the not-sure category I would be ready to part with a week or so later, but not yet. After all, I might need a roll of coaxial cable if and when I come back from New Zealand. . .

How strange that sometimes the things we own to a great extent dictate and control our lives? That it becomes too much effort to go on that great adventure or simply do something new because of some inanimate blocks of furniture wood, or a car that is paid for, or because of closets, cabinets, attics, crawlspaces, garages and storage units bulging with items (knick-knacks really) that we never use and don’t even remember we even have.

And furniture, that old sofa—I know you love it—but when your whole life which is rapidly for all of us coming to an end, is it really worth keeping it? Wouldn’t it be more fun to get something new if and when you come back? Do I have to look at these same lamps and pictures the rest of my life just because I once liked them?

And the papers. The reams of papers, notes, files, folders, brochures—do I really need to remember that I want to San Luis Obispo at one time and keep the brochure for it for all eternity? Will the IRS really want to audit my 2003 taxes were I made the total sum of $27,000? Will it come in handy to have the owner’s manual for a toaster oven, and documentation that I sent in the warranty card? What are the chances that I will ever look at the notes I made on bow hunting (which I never took up)? Even old letters from people—do you ever reread them? I see my mother’s cursive writing on a single letter. That’s enough to remind me of her.

Books. Lots of books, many like sentinels that have marked your way through life. When you see their titles, you remember fondly reading them, or their message or where you were when you read them and think of the author as an old friend.

Or for a particular book, you think I might reread it, you know. It was that good. But you never do, or never will. It’s from a stage of your life that is over now, and even if you did reread it, it wouldn’t strike you the way it did then. You had to be there. Or in the case of textbooks, the time you spent poring over pages, taking notes, studying and re-studying. How even after all these years, you remember many of the Illustrations and the effort you put into learning the material.

But there’s no room to keep them. So the ones we can, we give away to the used book store (where we now have a $487 credit), sell some at the yard sale and throw the rest away. Each of us put a box or two of our favorites into storage.

And just when you think you’ve cleaned out a room, invariably you find another little cabinet and open it—more stuff.

But while all this is happening, a certain liberating feeling sneaks up on you. It’s as if with each thing you get rid of you, you begin to feel lighter and lighter. Or as if you have this tangled mess of items that cling to your body. As you get rid of each item, it releases and falls dto the ground and you feel freer. And you open up more and more to what you are doing and the possibility of moving and changing your life.

We also had a moving sale. It was mostly just to get rid of stuff and avoid having to haul it ourselves off to the Salvation Army center. A few years ago, Rebecca’s grandmother died. The total proceeds from the estate sale were $637. It is sobering how little all your possessions are really worth. We weren’t sure we’d do much better.

The sale was to begin at 8 AM. Some guy was waiting in his car in front of our house at 7 AM when I went out to get the newspaper.

“Can I take an early look at things?” he asked. He was a one of a handful of professional yard-moving-estate sale buyers showing up early in the hope of snagging all the treasures before anyone else got there. Hoping to snag all the precious heirlooms, hitherto undiscovered paintings by masters, gold, silver and priceless jewelry mixed in with the old clothing, rusty tools, and broken small appliances. I didn’t stop to tell him that there were no heirlooms, no paintings (a few posters), nothing gold or silver. And he could have his pick of Rebecca’s costume jewelry.

“Sure, why not,” I answered.

There is something degrading about having a yard sale. Your whole life lies exposed and haphazardly scattered over the yard for people to see. It is as if people can finally see and say, “So this is the stuff you had in that house all these years—interesting.” I wanted to put disclaimers up on some items.

“I didn’t actually buy that. It was a gift, you see.”

And the buyers casually pick up or look over something you have used and held tender for years—a vase, a book, a piece of furniture.

“How much for this?” they ask disdainfully.

“That’s five dollars,” you answer sometimes with a tiny catch in your heart. But you can’t keep everything, can you? And some of the junk, to be fair, you’re amazed anyone would want it.

We wanted to get rid of stuff quickly. We had to be out of the house in a week. If someone showed any interest in an item, it was sold.

“That’s two dollars.”

“Five.”

“A dollar.”

“That’s free—take it.”

The piles of stuff in the garage and spread out in the yard rapidly diminished. After only a few hours, we had made enough money to buy ourselves lunch and even have a little left over!

Cars—it was hard selling our cars. I had two cars. I sold my 2000 Honda Civic to a soldier late at night. He had just been stationed here. He examined the car with a flashlight while his wife and sleepy children waited nearby and then handed over a pile of $100 bills and drove off. I also sold my other vehicle, a Jeep, at night. This was a few weeks later in the motel parking lot where I was temporarily staying. The man’s daughter had been in a horrendous car accident totaling her small car but surviving unhurt. He wanted something bigger for her to drive. The deal was finalized similar to the other except this time underneath a bright light in the parking lot.

So after two brutal weeks of effort, putting stuff in boxes, hauling stuff off and filling two small dumpsters with trash, cleaning, selling, giving away stuff, painting, recarpeting the house, we were done leaving only a few pieces of furniture to stage the house for selling and a few living essentials.

I put up a “For Sale By Owner” sign in front of the house, and after a week of parading people through the house and explaining how wonderful the light was in the morning in the kitchen, we sold the house to an older couple. He would live downstairs and she would live upstairs presumably meeting for meals in the kitchen.

A nosy neighbor came by who ended up buying some of our remaining furniture for rock-bottom prices. When I told her, we hadn’t yet obtained our visas, she chided us, “I’ve known people who have sold their houses and then things fell though. You can’t be too careful.”

“Yes, you can be too careful,” I felt like saying. “Being too careful is living your life like you are. Unless everything is lined up perfectly, you will never do anything. And things never line up perfectly.”

I figured what the hell, if we sold our house and couldn’t go to New Zealand, then to hell with New Zealand (I didn’t want to go there anyway then) and we’d move somewhere else.

For Rebecca and me, I saw this as a window of opportunity. It was the right time and place in our lives. Things had presented themselves and lined up almost as if by magic. But we had to do our part. The Universe had given us a chance. And we had to act with an equal amount of boldness. Because like some futuristic starship doorway, the opening would invariably slowly suck itself closed. Sometimes life is like that—you have to act—because the opportunity will disappear and you won’t be able to get it back again.

A week later when we couldn’t sell the few remaining pieces of furniture, we listed them for free. Two overweight women in a beat-up car came to pick up a bed and mattress. They tied it to the top of their car tying the doors shut, then struggled to squeeze their fat bodies through the windows of the car in order to drive off.

A month after starting, we were done. This house was sold and we moved into an extended stay motel.

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One thought on “Stuff

  1. So much to learn from this post. It’s all so true! After my mom died, my stepfather decided to move back to Australia. I can’t think of anyone more connected to possessions than Don was. Yet, I was there when he walked out the door to catch his plane back to OZ. He took nothing more than two suitcases. I was left with the task of getting rid of his lifetime accumulation. The memories stayed with him in his head.

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