“Houses are full of things that gather dust.” — Jack Kerouac
I’ve moved countries plenty of times so I should be used to it. But it remains a somewhat epic task to pack up everything as I have just done. In the past I made it palatable by putting things in storage (only to go back six months later and give it all away) or by leaving “essential items” with friends in case I came back to the city and set up home again.
This time I’m packing only what I need for the next few months and releasing the rest: sofas, tables, chairs, beds, bedside tables, cabinets, stools, mirrors, books, lamps, paintings, candle stands, fairy lights, antique bowls, plants, coasters, cushions, plates, bowls, mugs, cups, measuring cups, cutlery, storage for the cutlery, knives, utensils, glasses, pots and pans, skillet, baking pans, glass food containers, glass jars, spices and herbs, glass bottles, kettle, ice trays, pestle and mortar, blender, slow cooker, oven, water filter, fridge-freezer, washing machine, stove, chopping boards, colanders, trays, tea strainers, tea tins, mixing bowls, napkins and placemats, plate drying rack and utensils drying stand, oven gloves, tea towels, soap dishes, hangers, clothes, socks, under garments, caps, shoes, bags, purses, jewellery, bedcovers, bedsheets, towels, pillows, plugs, cables, clothes pegs, iron and ironing table, hair dryer, scissors, tape, mop, dustbins, dustpan and brush, cleaning rags, organising containers, printing paper, printer, paper clips, stapler and stapler pins, hole punch, envelopes, plastic dividers, filing system, paper tray, power bank, baskets, luggage, and more.
Here are 12 things I learnt about letting go by putting everything I own into carry-on luggage.
1. We’re built for this
You could say that humans are designed to hoard, just as we are designed to store fat in our bodies. In the scarcity most generations before us have faced, we cling to what we feel is precious and rare.
Even though now we have the opposite problem of drowning in cheap tat, our brains haven’t quite caught up. We are still ruled by our primal fears of loss and deprivation.
So there’s no need to get mad at yourself for not being able to let go. Letting go is, instinctually, hard. Until you tell yourself that it’s easy. Try it!
2. Minimising confusion
The more choices we create for ourselves – the blue, black or red one? pasta, dosa or salad? – the more exhausted we get. Decision fatigue is just an upscale name for confusion. Confusion about what’s good, what we feel like, what we really want, what we think we should want.
It’s simpler to tackle this on a macro level by reducing the number of choices we face every day – making a weekly menu, having fewer clothes, having a morning routine. Then the daily micro decisions become quick and smooth.
3. Jane Austen never wore trainers
Austen’s characters sometimes fretted about removing damp footwear so as not to catch a violent cold, but it never stopped them from going for walks. They were always walking. And none of them wore sneakers.
Humans have managed very well for eons in fact without trainers. Yet today we feel handicapped without athletic footwear, convinced we’ll do untold damage to our feet, knees or hips without them.
Commercial forces have convinced us we can’t prep meals without lots of gadgets. Or that we’ll get lost without a GPS. Or we won’t have friends or our business if we go off social media.
I grew up with washing machines and have rarely washed anything by hand. My mother on the other hand, at age 80, still washes her own clothes before her daily bath. She has three closets full of clothing, so it’s not as if she has the one-to-wear and one-to-wash rotation of her childhood.
While convenience and ease are wonderful benefits of a life made extremely comfortable, they can be at the expense of being rendered incapable and helpless.
Going back–to–basics now and then reminds us how powerful and sufficient we really are.
4. You can’t take it with you
I believe that we can’t let go of our possessions either because we want to hold on to the past or because we fear the future. (And to anyone who thinks they’re too lazy to declutter, if you offer to do it for them, they’ll still refuse – for one of these two reasons. Also: the rule above all rules is to never get rid of other people’s things without their permission!)
There can be a lot of guilt over letting go of things that belonged to people we love. My sentiment on this is the opposite.
There is not a single day I do not remember my dear brother who died at age 16 when I was 10. The thing is: I don’t own anything of his and I don’t need to; he lives in my heart.
My father died 13 years ago and I own nothing of his either (well, except half my genes). He too lives on in my heart. His heart was as expansive as the universe. The idea that he is somehow represented by an inanimate object that he used or even loved seems preposterous to me.
I don’t need objects to personify my feelings for the people I love. Or remember events by the gifts I received while attending them. The people and experiences themselves are enough.
I’m not saying memorabilia doesn’t have historical importance; of course some do, but those could and should be archived by organisations and institutions for the greater stories they tell.
5. Uncertainty can be my unravelling
My weak spot is fear of the future.
This is slightly different to the more generic fear of “I may need this someday”. Because I’m an exacting sort of person, when I find something that I love using – an eyeliner or a brand of tea – my instinct is to buy backups in case I’m caught short. So I tell myself that I will need this. And the mere thought of being “caught out” actually makes me fearful. (It’s not pretty but I’m owning it.)
The reason it’s not healthy (other than the fact that being fearful is a shitty way to live) is because it keeps my focus almost always on the future, instead of the present. I find it difficult to simply enjoy what I currently own, and trust that whatever I need will be available in due time.
Another depressing effect of this calculated hoarding: sometimes I finish the thing I’m using and decide I want to change it up, but now I’m stuck with a backup of the old thing I no longer like.
6. Show me what you store and I’ll tell you who you are
I used to beg close friends to tell me my fatal flaw – you know, that thing that’s always tripping you up, but you can’t see it yourself (though it’s usually evident to everyone around you).
I spent years trying to work mine out, but I finally understood it when I realised that my Stuff is a physical manifestation of my beliefs about life. Our individual approach to it reveals everything about us including our fears and, yes, fatal flaws.
For someone who holds on to the past it could be “I don’t want to be forgotten”, or “I’ll never be that happy again”. In my case, my cupboards – containing backups of things I’m using – told me I fear I can’t cope without them. Like a drinker keeping a secret bottle at the bottom of the bag, knowing I have these things gives me assurance that I’m somehow protected.
As various wise people have said, “How we do one thing is how we do everything.” So this fear is actually playing out everywhere else in my life too. Tackling deep psychological wounds can be a lifelong process. But our Stuff – being external to us – can be an amazing gateway to helping our whole life, not just the closet.
This fear of mine, for example, is, no doubt, why my body holds onto fat because some part of me is terrified of being vulnerable and exposed if I let go of this “cover” and “safety” I’m convinced I need.
This is likely connected to my eczema and auto-immune conditions: being in a constant hyper-vigilant mode, an overreaction to protect myself from harmless substances (or feelings) that I think I can’t handle.
This is incidentally why I was successful at my job: film production is essentially planning ahead for all possible situations. Yet having the licence to focus on all that could go wrong and to pre-empt them was also why I was chronically stressed. It’s the same way I approached my relationships too. It’s an exhausting way to live.
The awareness doesn’t mean the issue has been magically resolved, but at least I now have clarity, instead of running around in circles, hitting my head against myself and feeling bewildered by it all.
7. You can rewrite your What Ifs
My What Ifs used to be – What If my current stock runs out? What If they never make this version of this perfect thing ever again? What If there’s a pandemic and I won’t be able to get this thing that I’m convinced I can’t live without?
It took this pandemic lockdown to start loosening the grip on this. I did it very slowly and very carefully by giving away things one at a time, reassuring myself at each step. Like soothing a scared child (because, damn it, that’s what it is).
Now I remind myself to say: What If this finishes and I decide then if I want the same thing or something different or nothing at all in its place?
What If I’m okay with or without it?
What If I can handle everything that comes my way?
What If life is easy?
8. Lost opportunities
Every time we’re doing one thing, it means we’re not doing something else. If we have so much stuff that it needs a lot of maintenance then those are precious hours not going towards the things that actually matter or nourish.
Every time we’re researching, buying, carrying, storing, cleaning, protecting – and in my case, eventually giving away – our things, we are not building, creating, cooking, or growing other things.
9. Ingenuity over commerce
Having lived in India and Bangladesh on and off for many years, I often witness how purchasing a solution to an obstacle is usually the last option here, which is not the case for much of the West.
Because of high costs or unavailability of various conveniences and specialised equipment, problems here are solved with creativity first. Things are also repaired rather than replaced.
I want buying to be the last option to a dilemma, not the first.
10. Beware of unintentional hoarding
I discovered I had an inadvertent bag collection. I don’t mean purses, though I definitely had three too many of those too.
I always carry folding bags with me wherever I go. So I am totally baffled as to how I had a ginormous collection of fabric store bags. Perhaps being Not Plastic and also rather pretty, I accepted them and then dutifully kept them for re–use. I also had a pile of fabric shoe protector bags, though the shoes themselves are long gone.
Indeed, those roll-up bags to keep in purses for grocery or other shopping? I need maximum two at a time. I had seven.
I also had a crazy stash of random shopping bags of Not Plastic but Not Fabric Either, that – again – I stored for re-use. These mostly came in through food or other deliveries.
I had a frankly awesome collection of beautiful luggage bags, which I could always justify because, well, travel. They ranged in size and style (though all, I’m impressed to note, are deeply chic).
I can try to blame this on genetics because my mother seems to have spent a lifetime trying to find the Perfect Handbag and so keeps purchasing Almost Perfect Handbags and then being disappointed, and so the hunt goes on.
Some people have a love story with kitchen gadgets or books. Mine, apparently, is with luggage. Perhaps like my love affair with tins, this has to do with control and a sense of feeling contained and held.
Nevertheless, for the first time in my life, I’ve decided to keep only the ones I’m using right now and let all the other ones go. As I gave my things away to friends, I found excuses to package each item in a different bag just to release all of them. There’s a pinch of something knotty inside me each time, but, hey, What If my 32L backpack and one tote are all I need to roam the world?
11. Don’t let things become your identity
I often say I “pack my life into a suitcase” but the truth is that the case only holds useful things which support my life. My life-life is lived by me.
12. Staying in the flow of life
I was once giving an elaborate justification to my therapist about why I had to do various critical tasks before I would allow myself to focus on the things I really wanted to do. And she gently said that, actually, it’s good to stay in the flow of life.
I also now ask myself when I’m making big decisions: does this simplify or complicate my life?
When I check in with myself on these two points, I can find my own centre of gravity in the choices I make. It resonates from a deep place inside and feels just right.
This has helped enormously to release all the extraneous from my life in order to give myself room to enjoy the things I truly love and appreciate.
“When everything is simple we think clearly.” — Brooks Palmer
For details of how I pruned my wardrobe and what I learnt from Project 333, please see this post.
“So you find yourself at the subway / With your world in a bag by your side.” Listen to Keira Knightley sing A Step You Can’t Take Back from the film, Begin Again.
Partly inspired by the book, Goodbye Things by Fumio Sasake (which I too love), Youheum lives a life of extreme minimalism without furniture. She explains it all on her YouTube channel, Heal Your Living, and her website of the same name.
Elizabeth Gilbert gave a TED Talk video interview titled It’s okay to feel overwhelmed. Here’s what to do next. In it she tells a story of a woman who was lost in wilderness for 17 days and chose to replace her fear with intuition.
Keep it lean and easy!