Brand building through storytelling

Stuff happens

I was packing for a trip to Argentina with my husband, and we deserved every mind-clearing minute of our escape to the land of tango. We’d just moved from a house-size condo with three walk-in closets and endless built-ins to the compact loft that now held a fraction of our former possessions. We had jettisoned carloads of belongings—some of them nearly new—that used to seem essential but suddenly felt like excess baggage. The more bags and boxes we filled with cast-offs, the more useless things we uncovered that we didn’t even know we still had, from Annie Hall pants last worn in 1980 to a 25-year-old Encyclopedia Brittanica from our son’s school days. While surfing this tide of stuff, we had squabbled, cursed and, in my case, wept at the power of mere objects to drown the poise of two reasonable 58-year-olds. The purge took months. But finally we were home free.

Or so it seemed until I found an urgent e-mail from the condo’s new owners, mere hours before our flight to Buenos Aires. Turned out we’d forgotten some wine glasses. Could we please collect them ASAP?

Those damn wine glasses! So big and fragile, they had to be washed by hand, as gently as a baby’s face! They had filled an enormous custom cabinet of their own, a shape for every grape. I wanted to be sampling the wines of Argentina, not packing wine glasses in Toronto. Expecting four or five stragglers, I dashed to the condo with gritted teeth and found enough crystal stemware to fill a china barrel. How could I have missed several dozen pieces of crystal? Here’s what I didn’t understand. Stuff is persistent. It won’t be easily shunted aside when, after years of wanting more of it, you find yourself wanting the lightness of less.

I remember when people hung onto their homes until infirmity or death pushed them out the door. They left their kids to empty out the basement and fight over the heirloom silver. For my generation of mid-lifers, home is no longer the family castle. Instead, it’s a base for explorations that don’t become possible until children leave the nest and the workplace loosens its grip. The choice to downsize is sometimes made for us as lucrative jobs disappear. U.S. fashion designer Sigrid Olsen, who lost her line in a 2008 restructuring, has gone back to her creative roots as an artist and couldn’t be happier. To make the transition, she sold her sprawling house and moved with her husband to the 1200-square-foot summer home that now doubles as a gallery. She doesn’t miss her designer shoe collection. Reading Olsen’s story in The New York Times a year after our own downsizing, I recognized a kindred spirit.

When my husband and I first decided to downsize, we had logical matters on the brain. We’d bought the condo for a life that no longer existed–two big jobs, business entertaining, more money every year to spend on creature comforts that relieved the stress of late nights at the office. Then we left those jobs to write and consult from home. Instead of receptions for 100 corporate types, we were hosting grandson-friendly pizza nights. We began to shudder at the taxes on our condo. We thought of all the other things we might do with the money that was not rolling in anymore (hike the Thames Trail, start a business, improve our French in Provence…).

We assumed that reason and planning would see us through the move to a home barely more than half the size of the one we were leaving. Although we rented office space nearby to compensate for the two home offices we were losing, it was still a radical downsizing. Even so, we thought we had a handle on things until we took a good look at the stripped-down storage in our new digs–and began to get our heads around this downsizing business. It’s not just a real estate transaction, nor does it have a lot to do with logic. It’s about crossing the invisible threshold from the years of acquiring more and more stuff to the years of letting stuff go.

When I first fell in love with my husband in 1970, he had a theory about worldly goods: they turned you into a bourgeois fogey. “I can carry everything I own in two suitcases,” he said. Dashing as this seemed in those freewheeling times, I craved the sophistication that a throw pillow or two would bring to our first apartment, which the landlord had furnished in early Salvation Army. We celebrated our new household with the purchase of a red princess phone but saved the rest of our spare cash for pub nights and cheap schnitzel dinners—fun, not things.

Seven years later, we moved into our first house with so few possessions, all it took to finish the job was a rented van and a friend with a couple of hours to spare. We barely noticed that it had no closet in the hall and just a sliver of one in the master bedroom; our wardrobes still complied with the two-suitcase rule. But we had jobs, a five-year-old and a fierce desire to prove that we weren’t flower children anymore. Grownups didn’t eat off mismatched plates or sleep on a mattress on the floor. They went to work in serious-looking suits, with their papers in a briefcase instead of a plastic bag. Grownups had stuff. Before long, so did we. I remember how proud we were of those first purchases. Shag broadloom! Ironstone dinnerware! A teak bedroom suite with end tables! Nothing we owned would have cut it a decorating magazine, but that was just fine with us. At the end of the day, I’d throw my coat over the banister and think to myself with a sigh of happiness, “I’m home.”

For 26 years we feathered a succession of nests with increasingly elaborate stuff, the signposts on our upward path through adulthood. We hired a decorator to oversee every purchase for the condo, starting with custom built-ins. Stuff begat stuff, making short work of our budget. Who knew it was possible to blow so much money on UV-protective blinds, which we had to buy lest the upholstery fade on our custom sofas? The devil-may-care exuberance of sprucing up our first house had given way to a nagging unease about whether all that stuff we’d bought was sufficient or right. Returning to the condo from my corner office, I would think, “I’m home.” Then I’d find myself frowning at some minor imperfection. Should we rethink the headboard? The living room lights?

As recently as six months before we put the condo on the market, we had vague plans to buy more stuff. But something was shifting, imperceptibly at first, like afternoon light fading into evening. The condo felt to me like somebody else’s home, as if we’d borrowed it from absent friends who would return any minute to call in the caterer and plan a stylish party for people with more clout than ourselves. Then one night over dinner my husband confided that living in the condo was making him feel old before his time. Suddenly he looked younger than he had in years. I pictured him as he was when we met, with hippie hair and a rented room that held nothing but a mattress and two cardboard suitcases. “Do you remember what you told me about how much stuff a person should own?” I asked. How could he forget? Not long after that conversation, we agreed that a smaller, more streamlined home would expand our sense of possibility.

I couldn’t have predicted what a challenge it would be to get from there to here. Along with the possessions that wouldn’t fit in the loft, I would have to mourn what they had represented–a sense of limitless abundance, year after year. For the first time in my life, I looked into the future and saw my physical horizons shrinking. Was letting go of stuff a transformational adventure, or the first downward step toward one tiny room in my son’s basement? All I know is that I’m wise to focus on the upside.

I steeled myself for the shock of watching hard-headed strangers weigh the value of my possessions. Asked a Craigslist shopper, as she scrutinized a custom-made, plush ottoman, “Does it open for storage?” Since it didn’t, she offered me half the modest asking price. With no other takers in the wings, I let her drag it away.

More rewarding by far was giving stuff to people who would cherish it. A neighbour took dozens of boxes full of books to a centre for the homeless where she volunteers. A young friend, newly married and an avid baker, was thrilled to collect the electric mixer that I hadn’t touched for years. Another 20-something, who loves vintage clothes, took the Annie Hall pants, the skinny suits from my boardroom days and an expensive cloche that had never fit me but was perfect for her. Seeing Christa’s delight in her first hat, I could finally stop kicking myself for what had seemed my silliest fashion purchase ever.

It’s been two years now since we moved to the loft, and I don’t miss the stuff I chose to give up. In fact, I keep stumbling on things that are still around for no good reason. Why didn’t I toss that vest in black rubber mesh? Is there really any chance that I’ll adopt the bondage look? As I said, stuff is persistent. Yes, even those wine glasses. We still have the entire collection in the store room at our rented office, because my husband sort of hopes there’s a super-size buffet in our future (I draw the line at built-ins). Maybe 20 years from now we’ll be sitting in our son’s basement sipping merlot from crystal stemware. And I’ll look terribly funky in my rubber mesh vest.

First published in More (Canadian edition), November, 2010. Copyright Rona Maynard. 


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