Way back when, I had a Tumblr, mostly for pictures of our 9 month are-we-really-going-to-do-this trip. I’d been meaning to clear it out as part of my digital decluttering project. My friend Julie, who writes beautifully over at https://theworldinbetween.com/ recently wrote about the last hurrah of their stored belongings and I was inspired to add this old tale to my archive here.
Living out of a suitcase, halfway through a nine month trip, I disproportionately think about possessions these days. We have a house back there somewhere, though it hardly seems real. We will need to decide what to do with it, not to mention the lifetime’s accumulation of stuff, when we return this summer. This is on the heels of a major downsizing a few years ago, when we condensed our city lives and our country lives into the country house, the house that was purchased to be for forever and ever. We bought it pre-retirement as a weekend place with the idea that we’d be delighted to eventually live there full-time. Then we retired, and the ideal place to relax after a week of work became dull year-round.
Our initial downsizing was rushed and incomplete, so we decluttered yet again. This time we went deep and thorough. We took to it like breathing, shedding things effortlessly, and with that came a sense that many other options were now possible. So, travel. We took increasingly longer trips, and found we didn’t ever feel like going back. That spaciousness gave rise to the idea of truly long term travel. We’ve decided to experiment, completely shedding our home base for the foreseeable future. Which leads me to thinking about the meaning of home and comfort, of the things with which we live as we move into this new territory of being unrooted, untethered and simply exploring.
I read an article from the philosopher Alain de Botton’s project “The School of Life” on the meaning of home. The gist of his argument is the care we take in selecting those perfect things that create home is a function of the longings of our deepest self, seeking expression and confirmation. And that by surrounding ourselves with this externalized self, we remind ourselves daily of who we strive to be. Home as self-realization, a memorial to our deepest identities. To which I say, maybe. Maybe, if you’re a philosopher, or otherwise inclined to think deeply about the essence of a chair. But I doubt that is the case for most people. I think our homes result more from unconscious striving to fit in with our peers, letting the days go by, without ever asking ourselves the big questions.
He also says that living too long away from this externalized self, like while traveling, causes you to lose sight of who you are. Again, maybe. Or maybe you need to step away from that pile of you to figure out something new about yourself. I don’t think it’s coincidence that all the major religions emphasize ditching your possessions.
There is something to be said about our stuff as external memory. Some of our things are our connections to events, emotions, a direct line to our past selves. Like when you’re with friends, the inside jokes immediately recall shared experiences and layers of connection, distilled into shorthand. Our stuff is the lexicon of our past selves. A tray that means that flea market, and the colors of Italy. Or the china that reminds us of the ideas we had about what it meant to be an adult. To lose these things means to lose easy access to those memories. But the truly special things and memories are few, I would argue. A whole lot of our things are just detritus. Things chosen out of boredom, or striving, or inertia. The gifts, the freebies. The just-in-case storing up. These things aren’t the result of deep reflection, but rather its absence. If it is true that we build our identities, or at least solidify them through our things, then the self-storage industry is even more aptly named.
Home is a way we try to control the chaotic world. We want to impose order, to maximize comfort. We choose what we let in and what we exclude. Traveling as we are now, living in a series of furnished rented apartments among things we didn’t choose, we lose that control. We can accept things as they are or we can move on. But what we lose in comfort and predictability, we gain in time and lightness of being. What do you become when you lose the filler and filter of stuff? When you are no longer shopping, comparing, maintaining? As we go about figuring it out, we’ve told ourselves that it will get weird sometimes. I’m good with that. I like experiments.