My mother loves to shop. You should have seen our Christmas tree - a zillion beautifully wrapped gifts with handwritten notes from Santa strewn across the floor, stockings stuffed so high they refused to hang from the mantel. Back-to-school shopping became a game of One for You, One for Me. Name your occasion, my sister and I received a gift - Valentine's treats, Easter baskets, Halloween costumes. Trips to thrift shops yielded garbage bags full of vintage and secondhand scores.
Showering us with possessions, our mother's compulsion became an extension of her many emotions. Her feelings were, and still are, abundant - and everywhere.
Every nook and cranny is home to a sliver of history. My baby booties live next to the toaster oven. It's been 20 years since high school graduation, and my honor roll certificates are still proudly displayed on the fridge, slightly tattered and stained. I can't help but smile. This is love. This is someone who doesn't want to let go of anything that's ever meant something special. This is someone who loves her piles of stuff so much she can't help but grow them.
Because I am my mother's daughter, I used to feel comfortable with clutter. It felt normal. Cramped urban living reinforced this feeling. The tiny studio apartment my boyfriend and I shared in Bushwick, Brooklyn, was crammed full of stuff. Walls lined with hooks and hangers were draped with every piece of clothing a person could ever want. Shoe boxes like skyscrapers towered overhead. Jewelry spilled out of chests and into vinyl record crates. Music equipment, wigs, every single essay I'd ever written since high school stacked in piles. Art everywhere.
But after 13 years in New York City, talks of moving far away, traveling the world, and starting anew inspired me to get rid of the stuff. All of it. Collecting experiences became more intriguing than collecting tangible objects.
My boyfriend and I decided to move to Central America. So, I quit my job and started selling. I dragged bags of clothes to local buy-sell-trade shops every other day for three weeks, posted ads on Craigslist, emailed my network, and threw a virtual yard sale on Instagram and Facebook. I sold everything, big and small - my old garbage can for $10, my entire CD collection for $500, a bunch of clothes, old ticket stubs for $30 and a box of empty wine bottles for $12.
Throughout the process of throwing everything away, the occasional shot of tequila helped take the edge off of the emotional dust that got kicked around during the excavation.
The items I couldn't sell, I gave away to friends, neighbors, and my favorite local charity. I kept at it until the only thing left was two suitcases. Everything we owned fit in a Kia Amanti. In total, we made $7,000 selling off our possessions before we headed to Nicaragua.
I rode my bicycle along the beach while looking for Howler monkeys. I watched the red full moon set into the ocean at midnight. It was all magical and fascinating, and thinking back on owning things induced panic in me.
Thinking back on owning things induced panic in me.
Other than a random piece here or there, I didn't really miss a thing. In fact, I wanted to get rid of more. My suitcase was overflowing with bikinis (old habits die hard). I had to sit on it to zip it shut. We had everything we needed - each other, fresh fruits and veggies, a roof over our head, gratitude. Tempted to stay forever, we prepared ourselves for the possibility.
However, safety became a concern (the government's plan to build a 173-mile canal through Lake Nicaragua caused quite an upset with the locals) and after seven months, we returned to our homeland to figure out next steps. I was happy to not have stuff waiting for us. In fact, it made the next three months of traveling around the United States easier. We found a furnished condo in Siesta Key, Florida, and lived there for a while before moving again to Oregon.
When it was time to settle down again, the idea of buying things was incredibly overwhelming. We needed a place to sit. We needed a place to sleep. We'd have to buy things people own: pots, pans, dishes, a couch, a bed, a table. And since my beach wardrobe was no match for the Pacific Northwest's weather, I bought some boots, a few pairs of jeans, and sweaters to keep me warm.
It's been almost a year in the new apartment, and we still don't have any art on the walls. We like it like that. I'm vigilant about reducing clutter and purposeful with my purchases in a way I never was before we left New York City. Minimalism suits me well. And I've found a new balance: I own things, but they no longer own me.
I'd do it all over again. In fact, the next time I want to jump ship and explore a different continent, I'll know exactly how to do it swiftly. Happily, I'll trade in things for new adventures.