The stuff of life: the real reason why it’s so hard for me to get rid of most of it (again)

The trick is actually picking out the ones you like, first. (Photo by Karen K. Ho)

When I was in my teens, I went through hundreds of CDs. In addition to buying them at record stores, sale bins, even the campus radio station’s clearout sale, I also lived near a regional library branch that allowed me to borrow up to 50 at a time. I would rip them all at home, figure out what I liked and what I could delete from my hard drive later. I felt like I was gaming the system a little.

Like many of my generation, I almost never buy CDs anymore. But I’m confronting hundreds of the ones I loved (and some I wasted money on) because I’m moving again.

Going through all of your life’s possessions is tedious. When Marie Kondo tells people her blockbuster process of de-cluttering takes around six months, I believe her. The idea of going through each item you own, figuring out if it gives you joy and how to get rid of it is exhausting. There are a lot of memories and emotions tied to stuff.

I don’t have a choice. I have to deal with everything I own, again, in the next three weeks, because my family has told me they simply don’t have the space to hold the rest of my possessions. I do not want to rent a storage locker. And I have already pared down furniture, sold my car, and given away more than a dozen bags filled with items.

Currently, there are 25 cardboard boxes, mostly the ones that used to ship bottles of wine, in the basement of my mother and sister’s house in a suburb of Toronto. I filled them all before I left for my job in Northern Canada. And there are more items at my father’s house an hour away, including my undergraduate degree.

After your parents split and sell the house you grew up in, “stuff” is all you have left of a life that no longer exists.

When I was younger, I painted my room a bright sky blue in defiance of every plain off-white or grey you seen in new or renovated homes. I covered the walls in pictures, photographs, a floating bookshelf full of colourful graphic novels and young-adult literature, along with plushes and notes. I wanted it to reflect an outlook and mood I often didn’t feel in that house, and make it my own place.

During the renovations before that house was sold, my dad stripped off all remaining the stuff on the walls of my room and painted it back to off-white. I saw it a week before I flew to Yellowknife. After more than two decades of life in that room, seeing it absolutely bare and completely devoid of everything I remember, everything that made it mine, made me cry. Even more than my mom and sister leaving, even more than when I started to see my dad less because our relationship was no longer the same, seeing that room completely confirmed the home I once knew no longer existed.

New York will only be the second time I really move away from Toronto. Going to Columbia will be my first experience of living in residence, on campus. I don’t know what my studio apartment will look like, what furniture it will have. I can afford to buy things to fill it with. The problem right now is trying to figure out what I should bring.

I am well aware this is a great, first-world problem to have and despite previous pare-down efforts, I still likely own too much stuff. I do not need three parkas or two pairs of winter boots. My collection of workout clothing made sense when I worked out every day and biked to my job but not now. And I still have shoes in my closet that are either too small or too painful to wear more than a few times a year.

But in what often feels like a ruthless purge to be more minimalist, to deal with all my stuff, to cut down on the items that I really won’t miss or are easily replaceable or I won’t remember a few weeks from now, I wonder a lot about what is lost.

I currently work at The Globe and Mail, in what is essentially my dream summer job, as as a business reporter on a three-month contract. It is a job that has already taught me a lot, given me wonderful opportunities and allowed me to work with friends and professionals, some of whom I’m known about or read for many years.

One of the biggest things that happened was I made a mark through reporting on a video game.

In a fortuitous turn of events, I was able to pitch, report and produce a two-page news feature, what The Globe and Mail calls a Folio, on Pokemon Go soon after it debuted. I wrote something around 1,600 words in one day (and after many meetings) about the business and culture of the game, as well as what it meant for the world even if a reader never knew what Pokemon was, never interacted with the franchise, or never planned on playing the new mobile offering.

I think it did pretty well. The layout was simple, but eye-catching, and it explained pretty much everything I wanted to include, with a great business reporting core. I filed pretty late, which was definitely noticed, but I think people in the office also knew it was because I did most of it by myself.

I later heard the feedback from editors was also pretty positive. A great reporter, data analyst and multimedia editor, Terra Ciolfe, also recognized the additional spike in interest when the official Canadian launch happened a few days later. She compiled a digest of the Globe’s coverage so far and Google put the whole thing as one of the top search results for the phrase “Pokemon Go Canada”, which meant a new round of readers to my story.

This is a long way of saying, the story looks great online and did well, twice. But my main physical token of this moment, and much of my summer at The Globe and Mail so far, is a stack of copies of the Folio.

I have already thrown out so many copies of the stories I wrote for The Varsity, the student paper I wrote for at the University Toronto. I don’t have any more physical copies of the things I wrote during journalism school or during my internships at Xtra!, Snowboard Canada Magazine or even the Financial Post. I have four copies of the issue of Toronto Life with my feature on Jennifer Pan.

When you move six times in less than two years, you get tired of re-examining all of your life’s possessions, especially when you like analog things. Writing in journals, taking instant photos, sending and receiving cards in the mail, collecting paper maps, paper tickets to shows, my old passport from my trip through South America, books, autographed Broadway cast albums and Playbills. Even Lego.

I really wish I could bring more things with me to New York. I wish I had a better idea of what was important to me. Because to me, a lot of this isn’t just “stuff” I can just walk away from. It’s proof of the life I’ve lived so far: I was part of a family that looked pretty great on the outside. I’ve done some cool things. And I once had great taste in music and books.

I worry if I get rid of it all, I won’t be able to prove to myself, much less anyone else, that all of this happened. The good and the bad parts.

Which makes me realize something. For so much of my life, I’ve felt like I had to prove things. They include:

  • I wasn’t stupid.
  • I wasn’t less than for not being born a boy.
  • I didn’t deserve to be treated the way I was just because I was in a junior position or younger or not white.
  • I could succeed at sports.
  • I could travel on my own.
  • I had good ideas.
  • I could write and report well as well as take great photographs.
  • I deserved to be paid more, get more time off and have my insurance claims go through.
  • I was trying as hard as I could already.

And that it wasn’t my fault.

A lot of people either didn’t listen to me or thought I was exaggerating about what happened. “It’s not that bad.” “Everyone goes through it.” “You’re generalizing too much.” “Be happy you have a job.” “It worked before.” “We’re not changing things.”

I didn’t always journal or photograph what happened.  And in the last few years, I often tweeted late at night, after 11pm, what I felt like I couldn’t say when most of my friends would be awake. I didn’t want to burden others with my feelings about struggling at what felt like everything in my life.

In many ways, my “stuff” is my “receipts”: proof my life occurred. Be it time invested or lost, music that shaped my perception of the world, maps that inspired me to travel, books that helped me think differently, games that helped me be happy, cards that showed when a friend cared enough to deal with the expense of stamps, and journals. So many books full of words I wrote down that showed I was a writer, reporter and deep thinker long before I felt like I was genuinely good at it and deserved to be paid for it too.

That’s why I can’t throw so much of that stuff away. I know I’ll always need a big chunk of it. It reminds of me of how far I’ve come along.


2 thoughts on “The stuff of life: the real reason why it’s so hard for me to get rid of most of it (again)

  1. […] matter what, moving is expensive. There’s the cost of time: sorting through your belongings, figuring out what you want to put in storage, what you want to bring to the new place, what […]

  2. […] in life, and so far the reaction has been good. In the last few weeks, I’ve written about why it felt so difficult to purge stuff, the emotional and financial cost of moving, rejecting the exhausting expectations by men to be a […]

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