Ryan Irelan

is building Mijingo and doing limited consulting.

Grandma’s Feather Bed

In May of this year we sold our house and moved from Raleigh, NC to Austin, TX. The move was part of a larger plan and also the fulfillment of our wish to become more flexible and free ourselves of home ownership for a while.

Part of selling and moving is going through years of belongings and deciding what to keep, what to donate, recycle or send to the landfill.

After living in the house for seven years, our attic was filled with boxes, old clothes, holiday decorations, backpacking gear, old rugs, records, old files and more. Some of those boxes never saw the light of the sun since I taped them shut 7 years earlier. Inside many of the boxes were old items from my 20s and even my childhood.

As I was going through the items and had to make a “keep it or toss it” decision, I realized something surprising about myself: I am not at all emotionally or sentimentally attached to stuff. I keep stuff usually because I don’t want to make a decision to throw it away.

It almost scared me how much I didn’t care about the stuff. High school yearbook? Don’t care (but I kept it anyway, see bullets below). Wooden wall clock I made myself in 8th grade? I was proud of it at the time but I don’t care.

So, how did I decide what to toss? I tried to ask myself questions like these:

  • Does this item currently create happiness for me and my family?
  • Could this item create happiness for me and my family in the future?
  • Is it something that my daughter would cherish when she’s older?

For most of the stuff I came across in the attic, the answer was no. It’s all been tucked away in a dark, hot attic for years. None of that stuff creates or will ever create happiness. You don’t typically love the stuff you neglect. One of the exceptions were two boxes of 12 inch records. Those have brought happiness in the past and will continue to do so (once I set up my turntable).

I’ve been thinking about this topic ever since watching the last box (and my car) loaded onto a moving truck. But this post from J. Eddie Smith reminded me again how much I just don’t care about the old stuff I don’t use. Self-storage is a 20 billion dollar per year industry and “has been the fastest growing segment of the commercial real estate industry over the last 30 years.” Americans spend 20 billion storing stuff we don’t use. Stuff we think we care about it.

I suspect that a lot of this storage results from the tough situation of inheriting furniture and other goods that are family heirlooms. That’s a nice way of saying “someone else’s junk just became yours.”

Last Fall before our daughter was born we needed to empty some space to make room. I donated three pieces of furniture that were part of our family: my maternal grandfather’s rocking chair, my paternal grandfather’s desk he used in his cedar-paneled basement office (it was a roll-top desk that had the roll-top removed and was worthless, not to mention worn out) and a TV cabinet that I designed and built with my father.

To prevent any family issues, I cleared getting rid of the first two items with my parents. The third one, the TV cabinet I built with my dad in the woodworking shop in his garage in North Carolina, was tougher. While emptying it out, I found the initial sketch I made on a page from a pocket notebook for the piece taped inside the bottom cabinet. I made it as a gift for my wife for our first apartment in North Carolina. I was proud of it and it wasn’t a half bad piece of furniture. But I didn’t need to hold onto the TV cabinet–lugging it halfway across the country–to have the memory of building it with my dad and gifting it to my wife.

My take, however, isn’t universally accepted in our household.

“What about the memories?” she asks.

Those memories are still in my head in exact details and I don’t need the wood, paint, casters and hinges to make the memory any more vivid than it already is. After all, we don’t expect to take home the entire beach after a memorable summer vacation.

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There’s more to read in the archive.