When I left San Francisco for East Africa and Oxford nearly three years ago I rented a storage unit to keep some of my stuff. I had returned to the unit several times while passing through the Bay Area to pick up various essentials (surf board, snowboard, camping gear, bicycle) but had not penetrated beyond the first layer of the 5’ x 5’ locker since I crammed it full of boxes, files, a mattress and I know-not-what in May, 2008.
The time had come to deal with my storage locker.
The most remarkable thing about all the stuff in there is how little I missed it. There were moments during the last three years when I cursed myself for having to re-buy something lost in storage purgatory (yet another bike tool) and I was, admittedly, excited to be reunited with my favorite books. But for the most part, I have not only not missed all my stuff, I have felt actively liberated from it.
As the months and then the years passed and I moved from one place to another, I came to appreciate a lighter bag and a lightness of ownership. Less stuff meant less weight, less clutter, less responsibility, and, I have found, less desire for more.
Less mine. But, perhaps, more me.
I stumbled across this liberation by accident and, as you will see, I still have a long way to go. Others have gone much further. A website “The 100 Thing Challenge” chronicles a man’s effort to live with only 100 personal items for a year and challenges others to do the same.
An article in the New York Times last year included this and other stories about consumers consuming less and finding satisfaction in other ways: “New studies of consumption and happiness show, for instance, that people are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects, when they relish what they plan to buy long before they buy it, and when they stop trying to outdo the Joneses.”
As an aside, I have been amused but not at all surprised to find advertisers picking up on this growing awareness and desire for meaning and experience instead of consumption and accumulation. A recent commercial for Buick is a great example. Buick asks, “How will the value of your days be measured? What will matter is not what you have…” Now buy a Buick!
The day before I confronted my storage locker I stayed with my great friends and godparents, the Hoaglands. On the bedside table in their guest room they have a book, Journeys of Simplicity by Philip Harnden, that itemizes the limited worldly possessions and packing lists of great travelers from history and literature. As I prepared to take on my storage locker, I took inspiration from John Muir’s packing list for a thousand mile walk to the Gulf Coast:
In a rubberized bag
change of underclothing
copy of Burns’s poems
Milton’s Paradise Lost
small New Testament
a plant press
The 17th century Japanese poet Bashō packed very poetically for a long walk:
For cold nights
a kimono of white paper
treated with persimmon juice
a thin cotton kimono
and so on
Farewell gifts from friends
could hardly leave them behind
In recognition that I was packing not only for a journey but also for a slightly more settled life in New York this summer, I referred to the list of household items kept by Japhy Ryder, a fictional character based on the poet Gary Snyder in Jack Kerouac’s book The Dharma Bums. In Japhy Ryder’s cabin near Corte Madera, California, Kerouac noted:
Old clay jars
exploding with picked flowers
straw mats on the floor
burlap on the walls
prints of old Chinese silk paintings
poems stuck on a nail
in the closet
sleeping bag, rolled
books in orange crates
Suzuki, haiku, poetry
food stored on a shelf
bag of wheat germ
cans of curry powder
dried Chinese seaweed
bottle of soy sauce
homemade brown bread
When I arrived at my storage unit, under an industrial stretch of I-880 in the East Bay, I was shocked once again by the scale of the place and congratulated myself that my unit was relatively small compared to the multi-car garages on the first level. I notice these storage units everywhere now, perhaps because they are everywhere. There are over 50,000 self storage locations in the United States, offering 2.194 billion square feet of space. According to the Strategic Storage Trust, “There are 6.89 square feet of self storage space for every man, woman and child in the nation, thus, it is physically possible that every American could stand – all at the same time – under the total canopy of self storage roofing.”
As the occupier of two such units (yes, I am ashamed to admit, I have a second unit near my parent’s home in Connecticut), I am in no position to criticize, but I think this glut of storage space says much about America’s culture of consumption, waste and debt. It could, and probably has, served as the basis for searing cultural and economic critiques about our national woes.
It didn’t take long for my storage unit to explode on the hallway floor as I unpacked boxes, discovering long forgotten items, inspiring both joy (my copies of Where the Wild Things Are and East of Eden) and disgust (a box containing nine pairs of $100+ blue jeans).
Performing triage on this mess was exhausting. As the pile for donation grew, the pile of things I couldn’t bring myself to part with grew just as frustratingly tall. After hours of consideration and sorting I found a loophole and surrendered. I discovered that there was another storage unit in a lesser complex five miles down the road available for half the price. I justified to myself: wouldn’t it make financial sense not to have to replace some of this stuff (a nice mattress) and wasn’t it necessary to take care of gifts and family art I couldn’t take with me?
So while my old television, jeans and innumerable wasteful items made their way to Goodwill, an equally large car load found its way to the cheaper storage unit down the road.
There was one line I was determined not to cross. I would take with me to New York only as much as could fit in the back of my car. This sorting had been taking place simultaneously and the pile was looming ominously large. Even with all my recent packing practice, loading my car would be an interesting challenge.
* * *
In Escalante, Utah – 974 miles into my cross-country journey – I stopped for the night and packed for a hike the next day. While I was searching for my compass in the back of my car, I sifted through bags and boxes and surveyed my belongings.
In the back of my 4Runner:
plate, bowl, utensils
water bottles and filter
3 yoga mats
2 bags of clothing
1 box of books
short stories, novels, travel books
my old journals
paintings by my grandmother and great-grandmother
old maps of Scotland, America and South Africa
a photograph of Table Mountain
a U-boat compass
a Persian carpet
two digital cameras and a camcorder
a milk crate full of food
almonds and dried cranberries
apples, bananas, tangerines