Traveling light: learning what things mean to us

When I left Canada back in 2006, I wasn’t sure if I was leaving permanently, so I stored a bunch of things at my parents. In 2007, when I was back, I knew that my heart was in Spain and not Canada, so I gave away the rest of my stuff.

The things I kept, however, surprised me a little. The paintings by my father and the quilt made for me by my mother—those were givens, as were certain books. It was the kitchen knife that I didn’t want to leave behind or the slightly chipped cake plate—those things surprised me.

But when I thought about it, they made sense. The knife had hung on the metallic knife-bar my entire life growing up. Looking at the knife reminds me of talking to my mother while she prepared dinner and the theme song for CBC’s As It Happens played in the background.

The cake plate is painted with stylized flowers and reminds me of birthdays and other special events—covered with things cake with an orange-flavoured butter icing, or (at Christmas-time) hazelnut torte.

I still have a couple of pieces of furniture like my great-grandmothers sideboard that’s followed me around since university and was the first piece of furniture I refinished. At some point (when we have a larger apartment) I’ll have shipped them here. As for all my other stuff, the things I cherished in my house in Toronto? All gone, without a twinge of regret.

Carrie leaves her apartment this weekend, so I asked her to look at what she’s giving away and what she’s keeping. I also asked her why. Here’s what she said:

What I am keeping:
Clothes, 6 pairs of shoes, two pairs of sheets and 40 pounds of books. I am keeping three pieces of art. Two pieces given to me by dear friends that acquired the pieces while traveling, one piece I acquired in the same manner. Why? Because I love the friends and love the piece that I am taking with me.

What I got rid of:
My cheese plate. That was probably my most prized possession. I had to let it go as I could not justify carrying apiece of slate with me across the ocean. I have also gotten rid of my champagne glasses because I wanted the friend who got them to have it more than I wanted keep them. For the same reason I got rid of an Aztec calendar cast in stone that I brought back from Mexico City.

In short, I have gotten rid of almost everything. The 40 pounds of books includes my favorite cookbooks and some other books that were gifted to me.

The biggest surprise move has been the decision to keep my sheets. I think they represent my ability to purchase myself finer things in life like high thread count sheets. I also feel that they can still serve their purpose in my new home.

It is absolutely exhilarating to reduce my entire inventory of beloved objects to a suitcase full of clothes. I feel liberated from my life. I still have very very much to rid from my apartment, but I am really thrilled at the progress thus far. I am emboldened by the letting go.

How about you? Have you ever done a major purge and been surprised by what you kept?

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11 thoughts on “Traveling light: learning what things mean to us

  1. Oh yes! We moved from South Africa to Scotland a couple of years ago – it was a liberating, cathartic, healing process to only keep what we really loved and to let go of all the rest. Since then, we’ve kept a commitment to living simply. Doesn’t mean that clutter doesn’t build up – it does! But we’re far more aware now and make a conscious effort to only buy and keep what really speaks to us.

    Mags | Woo-Woo Wisdom´s last blog post..2009… Let It Shine!

  2. Hi Alex – Yes, when Pete and I got married almost three years ago, we combined two households. Most of my stuff went in an estate sale, and we put “my” house up for sale. We hired a company who came in to hold the sale after we moved what we wanted out.

    I wasn’t surprised about what I kept. I was more surprised at my reaction – almost grief – at seeing “my life” displayed on all the tables. I realized that I was far too attached to my things. But also, I was mourning an important chapter (the one where I turned into a capable single parent who had survived a crappy situation and provided a nice life for her children) that was coming to a close.

    There have been hilarious moments when I railed about not keeping certain items as I got used to living in what had been only “his” house, using “his” things, cooking in “his” kitchen – how I carried on about my egg separator. LOL! I panicked and ran back to “my” house to retrieve my tin of cookie cutters and cookie recipes, too. But that was more about bringing a tradition that my daughter and I could share. I realized that stress and change is difficult, even when you choose it.

    We need to remember stuff is stuff, not what we attach to it. Less stuff is more freeing! But detachments sometimes don’t come as easily as we might hope. I’m still working on getting rid of stuff from this house, too. Not that we’re pack rats, but still, things accumulate. We’re definitely subtracting more than we’re adding, so that’s progress.

    Betsy Wuebker´s last blog post..FINDING VALUE IN UNCERTAINTY

  3. I’m in the process of doing the purging. Being a military family we move every couple of years which gives us the chance to evaluate what is worth keeping and what goes to charity. I just took two boxes to charity this week and I’ve got another box half full.
    Stuff we keep has to serve at least one of these two criteria: Be functional or invoke happy feelings/memories (hopefully the stuff does both)

  4. Alex, this one is hard. I probably could have added this to my interview. John and I got married a year and a half ago and combined households. We are Still discussing what to keep and get rid of. We each feel attached to certian things, or the kids do and so we have been taking it slow, letting time sort out what feels important and what ends up not being so important after all. It’s interesting how right at the beginning, because he moved into the home I lived in with the kids, it was strange, all my things felt disrupted and all of his things felt like they were being shoved in a corner or second best to what was already here. We had to practice a lot of listening and compassion.Time has allowed us to detach and become more integrated

    Wendi Kelly- Life’s little Inspirations´s last blog post..Field Trip

  5. Marelisa says:

    Hi Alex: I lived in Italy for 6 months with a tiny (tiny) suitcase, a laptop and a printer (they both fit in a laptop case). Now why do I feel a sudden urge to get rid of a few things around here? 🙂

    Marelisa´s last blog post..Awesome Creativity Blogs

  6. I try to do a major purge every time I move. It’s tough when you live in a place for a while. I don’t notice the crap that is building up.

    You make a good point. Maybe I should purge on a annual basis to keep my space clean.

    Karl Staib – Work Happy Now´s last blog post..Struggling at Work

  7. Alex Fayle says:

    Yes, it’s amazing how even when we are careful what we buy and regular toss things that the clutter still builds up, eh? Personally I think it spawns on its own.

    Yes, one way of coping with radical change it to hold on tight to what we have, as if the stuff can keep the change from happening too quickly. And good for you for going back and rescuing the cookie tins and cutters.

    You must be a pro at purging now eh? A move every few years, not just around the corner, but to a totally new city. No wonder you’re a Professional Organizer – you have no choice!

    What a great way to do it. Rather than forcing the issue, you let it happen naturally. The Urban Panther has some good stories about moving into the Urbane Lion’s den.

    Wow, that’s even less than I cut down to, which was whatever fit into my car for a few months last year (well, who am I kidding? I had stuff at my parents’ and with friends in France).

    I try to purge quarterly whenever I do a take-everything-off-the-shelves cleaning (which tells you how often I do a good cleaning). I also find that when things no longer fit in drawers, it’s time to purge. 😉

  8. Kelly says:


    Reading this I’d almost forgotten about the two times I’ve let everything go without choice. At those times I could see quite clearly how little “things” mean to me.

    But the funny thing is, now, not having been in emergency mode for years… I like my stuff a lot! I was reading this thinking, oh, guess I’ll never move overseas, I couldn’t do that—when I realized I’ve done it before. It made me smile, how attached I am now, to my books and my supplies and our hobbies around the house.

    If I had to, I could do it again. I can boil the things I *really* need, down to a bag stuffed with important papers and the hand of my daughter.

    Kinda freeing, actually.

    Nice post. You’re always making me think.



    Kelly´s last blog post..Hello, My Name Is T.

  9. Alex, with every major growth period of my life, I have decided to get rid of stuff that was no longer of value to me. It is surprising what I let go of in times like that. 2008 was a year of getting rid of stuff. I take it as a sign that I am letting go of the past which is always good.

    When my dad died a few years ago, I kept 2 plates which I have hanging on the wall in my kitchen now. One of them I remember from my childhood. He had gotten it from my mom when they divorced. The other one was also from my childhood and belonged to my maternal grandmother. The third thing was a tool with a broken handle. I don’t know what you call it or where my dad got it from but I remember him using it to manually drill holes in wood when I was a kid. I guess it was a drill from before the age of electric drills. It is odd the things that we keep.

    Patricia – Spiritual Journey Of A Lightworker´s last blog post..Fear Is My Friend

  10. Patricia says:

    My mum lived for 94 years – I am turning 60 this year, when I turned 16 my mum started moving with my Father’s work they moved 22 times by the time I finished Grad. School. She moved at least 6 more times.
    Every move she re-evaluated her life and her goods, and let go and let go, until when she moved into my home to die she had her pictures, and something from her Mother and Father, and my Father’s dissertation. She also brought her clothes, and got dressed every day of her life.
    One of the jobs we did is pack up a box of personal items she wanted to give to each grandchild and child – her tea cup collection, her community plate silver (she had no illusions she thought the kids could sell it for college funds)
    She gave her furniture and clothing to foundations that could use the funds – as she did with her car when she was done driving.
    She was not her things or her books or her clothing.
    I think this is a great lesson for me to have witnessed and shared. She shared her stories and memories – and liked that one grandchild put her records from two file cabinets on computer disks…that was efficient.
    I am now working with two older women who are their things and having hording disorders and rats! Their children truly have a mess of a life to clean up and it is awful to behold.
    Good luck on your new adventure.

    Patricia´s last blog post..Mug vs. Heart

  11. Alex Fayle says:

    I don’t think everyone needs to live without stuff. If you’ve had to go without stuff in the past, having it now can be very comforting. You know that you’re not defined by it and you don’t obsess about having more stuff, so I say you have nothing to worry about – enjoy it!

    @Spiritual Patricia
    I love the stories that go with the things you’ve kept. I especially love the broken tool. That’s why I always go with the two questions of Need it? Love it? because some completely useless things have such strong emotional ties for us.

    Although my parents have only moved four times since university (they’re now in their 70s), they have the same attitude that your mother had. They love their stuff and have a whole bunch, but have no illusions about us wanting it. There’s no pressure or guilt being passed along with the stuff. They tell us regularly to make sure we have an auction house through the place after we’ve picked what we want and before we get rid of the rest.

    And good luck to you with your new clients!

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