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The Upside to Downsizing

It’s as much fun as a triple bypass, but getting rid of decades of stuff can be equally therapeutic

By Suzanne Gerber

If you’ve ever sold a home, you know the special kind of anguish it induces. And the longer you’ve lived there, the deeper and stronger those connections. Even worse than severing the emotional bonds, however, is dealing with all the stuff.
Which of course makes me think of the scene in The Jerk, when Steve Martin’s character is about to lose all his assets because of a lawsuit. His wife, played by Bernadette Peters, is weeping uncontrollably, and he attempts to console her by saying he can always make more money. And she replies, between sobs, "I don't care about losing all the money. It's losing all the stuff."
(MORE: The Art of Shedding Possessions)
Baggage, Literal and Metaphoric
If a blog is a snapshot of a person’s life at a given moment in time, I’m a mash-up of Bernadette Peters in The Jerk and Thor Heyerdahl on his solo crossing of the Pacific on the Kon-Tiki. I’m ready to boldly sail into my future, but I’m still clinging to all my cherished things.
I’ve actually been “deacquisitioning” for a while in anticipation of this. I don’t particularly want to leave my garden apartment, but I’ve always forced myself to see it as an investment. I’ve been stern with myself, saying that when the Brooklyn housing market was robust enough, I’d convert my nest into a nest egg.
So for the past two and a half years, I’ve been weeding through drawers, shelves and closets and recycling, donating and occasionally selling furniture, electronics, clothes and tchotchkes. By doing it in small chunks, it hasn’t been emotionally overwhelming — though physically, it has been a lot of work.
Now I’m down to the possessions I’m really attached to. I look at them wistfully and recall deserted South Pacific beaches; adrenaline-fueled trips into the jungle, up mountains, over the desert in four-seater planes and excursions deep beneath the sea; saz concerts in Capadoccia and gnawa performances in Marrakech; tiny Shiva temples in Rajasthan… I get a bit choked up wondering which will make the final cut.
Over the summer I visited some friends upstate. They’ve lived in the same quirky, rambling country house for a long time and it shows. The place is artfully filled with furniture, a lifetime of mementos — and well over a thousand books. In the office, I marveled at my friend’s vast library and mentioned that downsizing was presenting a challenge for me. She sighed and said, “I hear you. I look my books and ask, ‘Do I love this one enough to clean it again?’”
When I got back home, I made that my mantra. In fact, I did my friend one better. Each time I'd evaluate something, I’d ask, “Do I love this enough to clean it, pack it, pay to move it (or store it), unpack it and clean it again?”
(MORE: 5 Best Ways to Lose the Clutter for Keeps)
Going, Going, Gone
Since putting my place on the market last month, we’ve had four open houses and a dozen private showings. Because those appointments often get scheduled at the last minute, I’ve found myself living, and working, in a kind of antiseptic showroom. People who know me know my aesthetic isn’t Zen monastery — I cook and entertain a lot, am usually reading several books and magazines at once and don’t have anything close to a paperless office. Nor do I always put away my clothes, notes, dishes, teacups and toothpaste immediately after using them.
Until now, that is. My new housekeeping system may not be the most practical way to live, but it’s the best I can muster. Half an hour before a showing, I gather everything into huge piles and stuff them into the nearest drawer or closet. (Picture the Tokyo subway at rush hour.) When I need something, I simply forage like a woodland creature.
Even that doesn’t always satisfy my perfectionist broker. He likes to play hide-and-seek with my small appliances, few remaining decorations, throw pillows, cat bowls, outerwear, shoes, purses, soap dishes, brooms and… you name it. But we’ve made our peace. I’ve grown accustomed to not being able to find anything and he’s gotten used to round-the-clock desperate texts asking where the laptop case and cat utensils are.
I do appreciate the tidiness of my home after a showing, but living like this does not come naturally to me. As I survey the apartment — finally the way I want it — and the 30 years of accumulated possessions, I wonder, How can I possibly get rid of these precious objects? The antique bottles I’ve collected since the ’80s? The family photos? My Buddhas from Indonesia? The handmade lace doilies from the Turkish market that I haggled over and had matted and framed? Stones and shells marking special spiritual journeys? The holy water I scooped out of the Ganges?
The verdict is in: I’m still attached to my stuff.
And yet, much more must go. So I’ll start with the easy stuff: I’ll apply a modified version of my sister’s mandate to get rid of clothes she hasn’t worn in a year (maybe…three years?). I’ll re-sort though papers, photos, cards and letters with a harsh curator’s eye and allow myself to keep only two shoeboxes’ worth. To do the laundry and storage room, I’ll ask a tough-love friend to help me get rid of all nonessentials. But I’m going to need a SWAT team for the kitchen.
So what's the upside? Believing that less truly is more — and not wanting to clean, pack and schlep all this stuff — I practice seeing my load of precious valuables as just tonnage. I ask myself: If I never saw or used this again, would I truly miss it?
Attachment, from a Buddhist perspective, is the root of all human suffering. Practicing detachment doesn’t come easy to most of us, but like conditioning any muscle, I am building strength. And, I’ve got to admit, the place seems bigger, more aesthetically pleasing and full of possibilities. So while I can’t say I’ve reformed my maximalist ways, I am, slowly but surely — emphasis on slowly — coming around to a more minimalist approach.
And I’m keeping my eye on the prize.
Last week, when my broker and I were preparing for an open house, I glanced around and admired how streamlined and open the apartment looked. For the first time, I preferred the clean emptiness and actually felt lighter in my own body. I turned to him and said, “You know, the place looks so good, I think I want to buy it.”

He looked at me and replied, “My dear, you can’t afford it.”

Suzanne Gerber, former Living & Learning editor for Next Avenue, writes about inspirational topics including health, food, travel, relationships and spirituality. Read More
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