My boyfriend has few belongings and is unsentimental about getting rid of things, a trait I find admirable but perplexing. Unfortunately, I see a use for everything, and am pained by seeing anything get thrown away, envisioning growing landfills burgeoning with potential. I come by this impulse honestly: from my grandmother, who filled bread bags with more bread bags and jammed them in every corner for future uses, to my mother who saves everything remotely “collectible,” it seems to be a familial trait. Though my boyfriend laments his lack of belongings after some recent life difficulties, in many ways I envy it. My stuff has always been such a burden. (And really, at the eleventh hour of exhaustion that every move entails, neither of us felt a “lack of belongings” was a problem, despite the fact that we made his move with only a couple of trips in two vans, something impossible to imagine when I look at my place.)
Even now, in the midst of trying to change my life in such an enormous way, I feel I fail every day. Every project brings an influx of new materials; I save all the scraps out of hopes that I will reuse them – and though I very often do, it is impossible to use them all. (I also save plastic bags, plastic yogurt tubs and plastic bottles to make things out of, and they threaten to overtake my space like tribbles.) And that’s not even counting the storage problem of said projects, and the abundant amount of art and assorted things I manage to create, even in a single year.
In my marriage, another lifetime ago, the thing we most often fought about was my stuff. My ex owned a Harvard Gulch Softball League coffee cup and his childhood headboard complete with a shelf full of Hardy Boys books when we first met in our early twenties; he would rather throw out a thing than repair or fix it, while I cringe at every quasi-useful or recyclable thing that I put in a dumpster. Clearly, not a great match. And yet, despite my attachment to my stuff, I feel intensely burdened by it as well. I remember having fantasies about my garage, packed to the rafters with both useful and ruined crap, chewed by squirrels and leaked on, just catching fire and burning: removing me guiltlessly from the responsibility of sorting through all of my hurried moves, where an arm-sweep would fill a box with everything from my grandmother’s jewelry to documents with my Social Security number on them.
The reality is, I have lived and worked in over thirty places in Denver, sometimes having to move both home and studio at the same time, and all of my moves have been nightmares, each in their own way, because I simply have too much stuff. When I left for grad school, shaky and unsure if I would return or what my plans actually were, I packed a 24-foot truck and drove it to Ohio…and brought back a 24-foot truck two years, two homes and two studios later, each move shedding some things that were more than replaced by the next one. The move to Ohio took place after three months of yard sales (five total), multiple filled dumpsters and trips to donate to the thrift store. And still, the aforementioned garage hadn’t been touched, nor had the computer graveyard in the lean-to closet at the back of the house, piled high with dusty crap that was just a little too good to be total trash but still worthless to us, and the closet at my studio was crammed to the rafters while I sublet it. Stuff is a burden. And an even heavier burden when you move it.
So as I mopped my boyfriend’s bathroom floor and he packed boxes, I contemplated my utter failure to address my hoarding; in fact, my backsliding has been a response to the urge of being environmentally conscious. I remembered past moves – friends marveling, though annoyed, that I felt it was important to move a dented, rusted paint can filled with hardened tar holding aloft a beautiful, splintered brush-handle…failing to see the poesis in the object that made it a part of my “decor” – which, in my early twenties, consisted mostly of things I found in alleys and repurposed. Though I understood clearly their consternation, at the time, I found myself unable to part with these objects of beauty – the heavy rusted gear dragged home on my bike from the trainyard, the delaminated plywood portion of a sign in multiple layers of chipped and faded hand-lettering, the shattered remains of a colorful vintage Plexiglas 7-Up sign that I picked from the roadside when “The Friendliest Bar in Town” had an unfriendly incident. (Not gonna lie: I still have a little bit of that last one.)
When I moved out of my house and into the closet at the back of my studio, it was supposed to be short-term. My initial plan involved moving everything into storage, and once we fixed up and sold the house (tragically, right before the giant real-estate boom), I had planned to back a truck up to the studio, load everything straight in, and move to the Hudson Valley with my mom, where we would buy an affordable house with two apartments and live happily ever after. Though a lovely fantasy, the harsh realities of getting less for our house than we had hoped (hard to even imagine now, just a mere eighteen months later) and the fears that I was hurling toward a Grey Gardens scenario with my mother conspired to force me to make different plans.
But with this plan in mind, the move from my house into the studio involved putting the majority of my stuff in storage, and in that same eighteen months, despite my earnest attempts, I have watched my stuff expand again to fill the space —- almost behind my back, it seems. And now that closet, filled tetris-style with things for an imagined life that didn’t happen, looms as a potential future chore with more hard choices: None of it will really fit in the tiny house, though there are things that will be worth paying to store, like artworks, heirlooms and art books. There may be a future home for these things, and I don’t want to regret their loss…though I have finally learned to let go of the paint cans and rusty gears, with the confidence that the world is filled with beautiful junk for the finding.
I’ve never imagined myself one of those tiny housers who would get rid of everything but what fits in the house; I’ve always had a degree of realism regarding my need for a studio, if for nothing else than to keep my collection of tools that are too expensive to replace. Though I can always rely on open-studio situations like Art Gym or working at the Art Students League, where I also teach, a lifetime of accumulated studio equipment and materials is too valuable to just pitch, and too necessary for what I do, so I know my circumstances will always require some storage.
However, one of the biggest benefits I can see of eventually living in tiny is that I will never need to pack and move my home again, if I don’t want to. The hours of wrapping glassware, the hunt at the liquor store for boxes, and the months devoted to purging and organizing in preparation will no longer regularly punctuate my life. Instead, moving will involve securing a few loose items, dumping the tanks, hitching up the house and driving away. For someone who has spent a lifetime one step ahead of the wrecking ball of gentrification, the idea of only packing friends’ boxes has an unbelievable appeal. But the biggest challenge, besides finishing the house itself, will be to challenge my habitual hoarding and yet again purge more stuff. And this time, to keep it purged.
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging out her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here or here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.