Nothing is yours. It is to use. It is to share. If you will not share it, you cannot use it.” –Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed
Unnecessary possessions are unnecessary burdens. If you have them, you have to take care of them! There is great freedom in simplicity of living. It is those who have enough but not too much who are the happiest. –Peace Pilgrim
Over the last few years, my brother, Tony, has been asking me to move back to our hometown of Kansas City, Kansas. I grew up in Kansas and, to this day, my immediate family still resides there. My brother and sisters are settled, happy, at peace. They’ve raised their families, worked hard, and created nice homes.
I have always been the wanderer, flitting from place to place, living periodically in apartments, hotels, and cars. I owned nothing but a few books, some CDs, TV, computer, and a change of clothes. I don’t own a home. I won’t buy furniture. I don’t hang pictures on the walls of rented spaces. I hate clutter because it makes me feel like the walls are closing in on me. Funny, but when I am “settled” in an apartment, I tend to have frequent panic attacks. To remain calm, I usually don’t keep many things around me.
Many of my friends didn’t seem to mind my lack of furniture when they came to visit me. They always happily sat on the pillows I would toss around on the floor. We would sip hot tea or coffee. We would talk and laugh without distractions. We would look into each other’s eyes instead of glancing around the room. Many friends originally thought my lack of furniture would feel awkward. To their surprise, they usually discovered that my home was warm and inviting. Friends were always welcomed and honored in my home even if they didn’t have a comfortable place to sit.
My last apartment was in Palm Springs, California. To say I had a simple decorating style would be an overstatement. I had decorated the apartment in the “Early Wal-mart tub” style. Seriously…I had just purchased plastic tubs from Wal-mart to hold my CDs, books, papers, and underwear. I slept on an old army cot. I explained my decorating style to my friends this way. “When I have to leave again, I don’t want anything holding me down or holding me back. I just want to be able to throw my things in my car and drive away. I want to be able to leave at a moment’s notice and not have to worry about things.”
Possessions have always been a problem for me. In the distant past, with my first apartments, I did try to create a sense of home by purchasing appliances and furniture. But when the urge and opportunity came upon me to move, I didn’t know what to do with everything I owned. I didn’t want to pack it and move it. I didn’t want to deal with it even if I was just moving ten miles away. I would just give my things away. That was a very strange situation. I would call my friend, Julie, and tell her I had a vacuum, microwave, TV to give away. She would answer, “I really would love those things, but I’m too busy with the kids right now. Can you bring them over?” So I would load up my car and drive the things over to Julie’s home. Then my friend, Sara, asked for some of my things. I would load up my car and drive the items to her house. Next thing I knew, I was delivering random stuff to all of my friends’ homes. Why didn’t I just move everything to my new apartment!? I was moving the things all over town anyway! I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I just kept given my things away without even considering taking them with me. For some reason, this odd ritual just made me feel free and unburden and I would repeat it with each move.
A few years ago, things changed a little for me. I thought I would finally settle down in Southern California. I had a good job and was making extra money. I still wouldn’t buy furniture; that was too big of a commitment. But I did indulge in buying additional books and CD, which really make me happy. But a strange thing happened. Staying in one place caused me to accumulate more things. And the worst part…I got attached! Seriously, I became very attached to my books, my CDs, my DVDs, my clothes. I became selfish. I didn’t want to give anything away. I wanted my things…the things I had worked so hard to acquire.
So, a few months ago, when Tony again asked me to move back to Kansas, I responded honestly. “I don’t want to give up my things again. I always give things away every time I move. And Kansas is a thousand miles away from California. I don’t want to give everything away.”
“You don’t have to give your things away,” Tony laughed at me. “Why would you do that? Bring it with you. Hire a U-Haul, get a van, hire a moving company. You don’t have to leave it behind.”
But still, I resisted the move for a while until I finally decided last month that it was time to return to the Midwest. I decided that Tony was right. I didn’t have to give away anything I wanted to keep. I would just pack it all up, put it into storage, and then hire a company to move it to Kansas when I was ready to return to the Midwest. I soon notified my leasing company that I was leaving my apartment and began to pack my “things.” Now, as many times as I have moved, I still don’t know how to pack. That’s because I never took the items with me before. Now, I just went to Home Depot and purchased a stack of boxes and some tape. I just started throwing random pieces of my life haphazardly into the boxes and taping them up. I placed the boxes into a small 5 X 5 storage unit. For some odd reason, I was pleased that my whole life could fit into the smallest space available. I think it was reassurance to me that my life wasn’t cluttered. I wasn’t hoarding anything. i really wasn’t attached. I began to breathe a little easier as I closed and locked the door of the storage unit and drove away. For several weeks again, I traveled unburdened through Northern California, Oregon, Washington, and Canada. I was totally unencumbered. I was able to breath and feel free once more.
I was ready to return to the Midwest. Before making the journey, I first had to meet the movers at the storage unit. I apologized a few times when the movers complained that the boxes loaded with books were so heavy, but I didn’t really worry about it. I just watched with relief as the two large moving men placed my 24 boxes, the sum of everything I currently owned, onto the truck and took it all away. I had my freedom and I would have my things. Tony was right. I didn’t have to give anything away. I was able to keep my possessions….and I was able to drive back to Kansas without feeling the weight and heaviness of my possessions.
Once I was in Kansas, anxiety began to build up in me. Twelve days later and my possessions had still not arrived. All kinds of thoughts and worries hammered away at my brain. What if the moving company had been a scam? What if the movers were going to hold my things for ransom? What if my items had gotten lost, damaged, or stolen along the way? What if the only time the moving company could deliver I was scheduled to work at my new job? The “what if’s” built up with endless anxiety. “Stop it,” I tried to tell myself. “It doesn’t matter. It’s just ‘stuff’. Let it go.” But the stress kept me awake at night. Yes, stress…over ‘stuff.’
Finally, I received a call from the movers letting me know that they could deliver the items the next day…well, night. They would not be arriving in Kansas City, Kansas, until 9 pm. I told them that was fine. I didn’t care if they didn’t arrive until midnight. I just wanted my items delivered and the whole thing over with. The movers didn’t show up the next evening until around 10:30 pm.
Tony had just gotten home from work when the moving van arrived. I was fortunate to have him there. The delivery was a little rough. The truck driver actually passed up Tony’s house and was halfway down the street before realizing his mistake. He suddenly brought the truck to a loud screeching stop and then backed up with lights blazing and the annoyingly loud reverse “ding” sound echoing around the neighborhood. The noise brought several neighbors to their front doors. Tony’s next door neighbor, an elderly woman dressed in a purple bathrobe, fuzzy slippers, and pin curlers, stepped out onto her front porch. I couldn’t quite hear what she was shouting at Tony, but my brother answered, “It’s okay. It’s fine. It’s just a moving van. They are delivering to my house. “
The elderly woman shouted to Tony again. After he reassured her that the van was there make a delivery, not to rob the neighbors’ houses, the woman went back into her home and quickly shut and locked her door. Tony and I stared at each other and then turned our attention back to the delivery truck.
“Oh, my God,” Tony suddenly declared. “What is that driver doing? He doesn’t know what he’s doing! He doesn’t know how to drive that truck!” Tony went running out into the street as he watched the driver steer the truck right up into another neighbor’s yard. Tony tried to flag down the driver and get him to turn in the other direction. Tony walked up to the side window of the truck and after some discussion, the driver finally stopped the truck in the middle of the street. Tony walked back to me shaking his head. “Oh, man,” he sighed, “the neighbors are not going to be happy when they see their yard tomorrow morning.”
I just stared at my brother in surprise, completely incapable of responding.
The large, red-haired driver now climbed out of his seat and walked to the back of the truck. He pulled up the door and I was suddenly staring at all of my boxes…all of my crumbling, smashed, opened, mauled, tattered boxes.
“Did you pack this stuff?” the driver asked me. I just shook my head yes. “Man, way too heavy. Those boxes weren’t strong enough for everything you packed. And the tape you used…absolutely useless.”
“It was books,” I answered meekly. “I packed books…”
I didn’t know what else to say as the man now began to gather together the ripped boxes and throw them down off the truck. Several of my books fell out and scattered across the driveway. I was so thankful to have Tony there. As the mover threw the boxes off of the truck, Tony and I gathered together the pieces. Tony placed the boxes on his dolly and rolled them into the garage. Many of the boxes were so heavy, the two men had to lift them together just to get them onto the dolly.
“Way too heavy,” Tony shook his head at me. “Why did you pack everything this way?”
I could just shrug my shoulders helplessly. I wanted my things this time, I just remember thinking. I just really wanted my things. I didn’t want to give them away again.
Finally, the 24 ripped and tattered boxes were inside the garage. I paid the mover and thanked him for his help, even though Tony did the majority of the heavy lifting and hauling into the garage. When the mover drove away and the neighborhood was once again quiet, Tony and I stood in the garage together staring at the boxes that were open and/or fallen over. I was shocked, surprised, and speechless.
Though I truly appreciated Tony’s help, as I stared at all of my possessions, I didn’t feel happy or relieved. I didn’t feel excited or elated. No. Instead, I felt humiliated. I felt embarrassed. I was absolutely horrified. All of that fuss. All of that upset and worry and stress. All of the annoyance to the neighbors and all the work Tony suddenly had to do…for this! For this dilapidated, falling over, crushed, and scrambled pile of boxes. All of that work and worry for all of my absolutely worthless material things!
I felt myself burn with shame. I was so angry that I had let material things own me, control me, and load me down.
Tony was incredibly gracious about the whole mess. It was as if he knew that this was the total sum of my net worth. He had more respect for the remnants of my life than I did. He smiled. He said he would find stronger boxes for me. He said he would help me repack everything and make sure it was all there and all safe.
I just wanted to throw everything in the trash now and forget about it. I wanted to sell it all on EBay. I wanted to place all of the boxes in the front yard and let someone just walk off with them…if he or she could even lift the boxes! I wanted to have a garage sale and sale everything at discounted prices. I wanted to pack everything up into my car and deliver to the homes of my friends. After all of the struggle and all of the fight over all of my junk, it just didn’t seem like it mattered anymore.
Two weeks later, and all of the boxes are still sitting in the garage. I haven’t unpacked them. I hadn’t even looked at them. I haven’t gone through any of the boxes or rearranged them in any way. I have an aversion to looking at them or touching them. The boxes make me cringe. They remind me of my once horrible attachment to things that didn’t even really matter in the first place…I just want to get into my car now and drive away from the whole, God awful mess.
I want to live out of my car again. I want to sleep in the backseat and keep battered paperback books on the passenger seat beside me. I want to listen to music on the car stereo and cruise through small ghost towns throughout America…alone and free.
But for now, I’m buried under a mountain of junk that keeps me trapped and weighed down in a quasi-normal life. Why did I insist or believe that I couldn’t move without my things this time? Was I just using my things as an excuse not to move again? And now that I am in Kansas, will I ever run free again? Maybe I just want to feel love…love of life, love of thought, love of spirit…Maybe I just want to feel love instead of taking cold comfort in material things.
I remember reading in a Buddhist book about the theory of attachment. I paraphrase the thought, but it basically said that it was okay to have things but don’t become attached. You must know that all things are impermanent. Have things but don’t allow yourself to become sad or disappointed if they are lost, stolen, or broken. They are not the sum of your life, of your existence.
I don’t know why I let myself, for a period of time become so attached to my things. Maybe I just needed it for a time to feel like I was accomplishing something.
But now, I think I could just walk away and leave everything behind…and I would be okay. Yeah, I would certainly be okay.