Thursday, July 1, 2010

Moving Here: Letting Go of Your Stuff



It's a peculiarity of the modern Western -- and more precisely I think, American -- economy and culture that so many have the wealth and leisure to acquire and possess huge quantities of things. Those of us who have grown up in the economically privileged classes of this society, especially we baby boomers, are among the very few in the world, and in all the history of humanity, that have possessed so much wealth and such an availability of goods that we accumulate tons of objects that we rarely use. The economy and much of the popular culture revolves around the "consumption" of goods, their shipment, maintenance, insurance, storage and re-sale. But mostly it's all about buy, buy, buy. With the enormous business of advertising, the invention of things like fashion seasons and model years that encourage the purchase of new before the old is used up, with rapidly evolving technology and the concept of staying current and keeping up, people end up with obscene quantities of stuff.

And what about collections? What a luxury (and waste, really), in a world where the huge majority of people work just to provide basic shelter and food (many with intense struggle and often little success), to be able to amass collections of things just for the pleasure of it. The culture of multi-car garages that shelter no vehicles, the storage unit industry, and the business and hobby of garage sales has come to seem more and more strange to me as I pass years in a place where people do with much less.

I recently have been communicating with a fellow blogger who is in the process of wrapping up business and home life in the United States in preparation for a move to the Yucatán. She and her husband are remodeling a house on the beach near Mérida, and trying to downsize and get rid of stuff back home, with the intention of moving to live in Mexico late this year. As I have been, she and her husband are collectors. She told me that she felt overwhelmed with the task of disposing of a lifetime accumulation of possessions and an antiques business.

Having a vacation home in Mexico is one thing; actually moving one's life is quite another, and that is what she is doing. A few years ago I did the same thing. I started thinking about how I accomplished this task and how I felt afterward.

First, I've got to say that getting rid of an accumulation of stuff can feel really good. You may not realize it until you have said goodbye to a pile of your things, but as fun as it was to accumulate it and as interesting as some of it may be, there can be huge relief in having much less to be responsible for. Moving lots of goods internationally can be complicated, unreliable and expensive. Storage is expensive. The best alternative for folks moving some place far away is to get rid of stuff.

As you get rid of possessions, there are three choices. You can donate or give things away, sell, or take things to the dump. There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these. Giving and donating allows you to put things in places where they will be appreciated and used, and this is a way to get rid of a lot of stuff quickly if you do it in big batches (like calling up the Salvation Army thrift store truck). Selling, if you are the garage-sale type, is a good way too, as long as you have time, patience, and keep the main goal in perspective. The one garage sale I held several years ago turned into a big giveaway at the end. I wanted to make some money, but did not want to repack or move the stuff again, so after a few hours I began reducing prices ("the TV works perfectly, how about fifty cents?") and got rid of almost everything. I hate waste, so for me the dump was only the last resort for genuine trash, useless papers, and items that were not recyclable and past all use.

But there is a greater benefit to "unloading" your life. I could have called this post, "Letting Go of Your Stuff, and Getting More in Return." Arriving in a new home in a new country without many possessions is a good opportunity for a fresh start. And I don't mean starting over accumulating replacements for everything you left behind. I think it's an opportunity to change habits, simplify and have less stuff and thereby, less stress. It's an opportunity to enjoy moments, relationships and nature, and to learn to value work for its capacity for fulfillment rather than purchasing power. It's funny how many people voice the sincere belief that money can't buy love or contentment, but then work like slaves to that very concept their whole lives, accumulating money and property in a vain search for happiness. Arriving in a new home with light bags is a wonderful chance to live your beliefs and make some positive life changes.

Some people find this hard. It takes a lot of self confidence to give up the status many derive from all of their possessions. If your authentic self is something you have been masking behind cars, fashion, technological gadgets and accumulations of expensive possessions, it can be scary to come out from behind the disguise. I find that having fewer things and less need for them equates to having more time, more space and easier chores around the house, less urgency about money, and to leading a more fulfilling, less complicated life.Your Mexican neighbors can be a good example of this. It's an easy exchange, if you ask me.

2 comments:

  1. We purged ourselves when we moved from Alaska to Arizona, but in the last 10 years we have managed get get more stuff. I have no problem letting go of stuff, so we are in the process of purging again in our prepration to move to Mexico.

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  2. Thank you, Marc, for this... it comes at a critical time, reminding me of the task ahead and the rewards once the work of disposal is done.

    "and in all the history of humanity, that have possessed so much wealth and such an availability of goods that we accumulate tons of objects that we rarely use."

    I remember finding a database of old public service/government film clips a few years ago. I happened upon the post-WWII pro-consumption clips and was fascinated by the blatant insistence that buying = patriotism and doing one's duty to country. Really? But then that cretin George Bush urged the same thing post-9/11, didn't he? "We've been attacked by terrorists, go shopping!" seems absurd, but that was the message and it seems to be what we did while the important people arranged for the invasion of Iraq. While we were shopping. I started my business July 2001. In the 3-4 years thereafter, people were spending stupid ~ and I mean STUPID ~ money for things. It was ridiculous, absurd, almost shameful in retrospect. I imagine the mortgage refinance market had a lot to do with it. Who needs home equity when I can use my house as an ATM and buy buy buy? Crazy times.

    "And what about collections? What a luxury (and waste, really), in a world where the huge majority of people work just to provide basic shelter and food (many with intense struggle and often little success), to be able to amass collections of things just for the pleasure of it."

    It's true. And that's the thing that has affected me so deeply the last few years. I am financially comfortable, nowhere near rich by American standards, but unbelievably wealthy by the standards of too many. I have so much stuff I can fill a warehouse, my own home, a basement, and a garage. It's obscene and it makes me feel a little sick these days. We're each stuck in our little castles, hoarding our riches, cataloging and reviewing our collections while plotting to get more, ever more. I imagine ~ hope ~ that my life in Mexico will be different. Evenings spent in the town square watching the kids play instead of dusting a hundred antique eyecups, or polishing the compasses and telescopes. I hope so.

    Arriving in a new home with light bags is a wonderful chance to live your beliefs and make some positive life changes.

    Perfect. I can't wait. And yet in a world where work is increasingly uncertain ~ double dip recession on the horizon? a depression? deflation? ~ I must recapture as much as I can from the liquidation of these masses of things. I dream of opening the doors and letting folks cart it away, but I can't do it. Maybe in the end.

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