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Manning up to Downsize: the Burden of Being Stuffed with Stuff

By Tim Harper

This is an ode to stuff.

Specifically, my stuff.

I’m not sure how I got so much of it, other than to confess that downsizing has never been one of my strengths.

It’s again clear to me that this world is composed of two types – those who can toss old stuff and feel a sense of exhilaration and people like me who still own t-shirts celebrating the Blue Jays 1992 World Series victory. Have I shown you the hockey jersey I bought in Moscow in the early ‘90s?

Don’t get me wrong. This is not about hoarding. My condo is a temple of order and organization. Books are placed on shelves based on height, CDs are in alphabetical order, magazines in chronological order.

But I feel a reckoning at hand as I prepare to merge two households into one condo.

First, I must deal with imponderables.

How is it possible for a man who has never lived anywhere longer than five years since bolting the parental home nearly half a century ago to have accumulated such an amount of stuff, much of it packed, trucked and unpacked at multiple locations, from Toronto to Vancouver to Ottawa to Washington to Ottawa back to Toronto?

And why does my downsizing seem more like tidying up? I must come to the reality that tossing out an old pair of sweat socks is not downsizing, no matter what I tell myself. After one move from Washington, when my then-partner and I thought we had done a smashing job of downsizing, we ended up sending furniture back on the moving truck after filling four floors of our new home, plus the entire garage.

Many parents hold onto mementos of their children’s youth. As I wait for a daughter to become prime minister, and with it the inevitable clamour from museums for evidence of her second grade triumphs, I do wonder – did I need to keep copies of every writing and arithmetic test she ever took? Every papier maché figurine and nursery rhyme colouring book?

And, does anyone really need 40 years of Esquire magazines? (I actually know the answer to this one).

On some fronts, I’ll be okay. I have filled a bag with pants for donation because a little-known side effect of this pandemic is the way in which it shrinks waist sizes of trousers in your closet. I understand that 40 ties are, at this point in my life, probably 39 too many.

One year, many lives ago, I got rid of 500 vinyl albums. Now I will make 500 CDs disappear and in a painful admission that the ‘90s were 30 years ago, I will be rid of all the audio and video devices which were once cutting edge but now come with kilometres of wires skilfully hidden behind the entertainment unit (which is staying).

But as for the rest . . .

The baseball cards and memorabilia are sacrosanct, although I am downsizing (actually already tossed out about 20 cards, leaving only 20,000 or so to move).

Now I’m talking about couches, kitchen tables, chest of drawers, side tables, and patio furniture. My heart begins to race as I even contemplate such separation anxiety.

It’s hard not to feel that there are omens out there that I must heed, however

There was a friend who, unsolicited, told me about his sense of freedom because he had just tossed a bunch of his stuff. A daughter texted me with a picture of something she came across as she cleared out closets, complete with a GIF from the movie The Purge.

Just before I sat down at the laptop, someone I follow on Twitter posted a photo that looked like it could have been taken in my office with the sad lament, “what to do with a lifetime of magazines and yearbooks?” I replied seeking an answer, but he didn’t really have one.

Then a friend posted a poem on her Facebook page entitled simply, Storage, by Mary Oliver.

Oliver tells of putting her things in a storage unit, filling it and leaving it.

“Years passed.

Occasionally I went there and looked in,

But nothing happened, not a single twinge of the heart.

“As I grew older the things I cared about grew fewer, but were more important.

“So one day I undid the lock and called the trash man.

“He took everything.’’

Oliver found more room in heart for love. She felt free like “the birds who own nothing – the reason they can fly.’’

She may be soaring, but I feel strangely earthbound, like a guy soon to be without his stuff.

Every magazine, every book, every CD represents a time in my life, a memory, a rite of passage I can cradle in my hand. And that’s the thing about stuff. You can touch it, you can hold it, you can remember.

But stuff expands and my world seems to be contracting. We are on a collision course.

It’s just stuff, right?

So will I find freedom, or will I spend wistful evenings in a storage unit, drinking wine and reading the liner notes on CDs from the ‘80s?

And does anyone need 40 years of Esquires?

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