My grandfather gave me the dollhouse right about the time my brain began to form lasting memories. He’d built the entire thing himself, with his own two hands. My mother, the oldest of four children, was the first to give her parents a grandchild, so I was a big deal. My grandparents spoiled me in the usual ways, but the dollhouse held the most meaning. Within each piece of tiny furniture there existed a universe of adoration. Every small human figure and carefully cut piece of fabric, another echo of love from my grandfather to me.
A few years later, my mother and I moved halfway across the country. I could only take with me a few things that would fit in the car. The dollhouse, with most of our other possessions, remained in my grandparents’ garage.
“We’ll come back for that stuff later,” my mother said. “We’ll rent a U-haul and move it all into our new house when we find one.”
I believed that, so I didn’t worry about my dollhouse, or any of the other things.
When I was 16, I walked into the kitchen just as my mom was hanging up the phone. She’d been talking to her parents, who had decided to move, and needed to empty out the garage.
“You never came back,” they said. “It’s been eight years. We sold everything.”
I listened as my mother lamented the loss of the things. The stuff. She rattled off a list of random items that had once been in our home. Most of the things she mentioned, I could barely remember. Until she said, “your dollhouse.” The one thing I remembered well, and genuinely missed.
But, my mother had never rented that U-haul truck; had never gone home even to visit. A houseful of miscellaneous items had been abandoned in favor of a new life, and while I didn’t recall much about the old life, or the old things, I could see that in my mother, there was a sincere loss. A longing for the stuff.
A couple of years later, she threw me out of the house. I came home one day and found all of my possessions piled up in the front yard. Everything aside from the bedroom furniture and whatever she had decided to keep for herself. A couple of my friends helped me to haul off whatever we could. The rest, I was forced to abandon, and I moved on to a new life. A new life which was beginning with a few boxes of stuff and homelessness.
Over the next decade and a half, I slowly began to build a life, and accumulate things, just like anyone. Not an abundance, but enough for an average life in a two-bedroom, 800-square foot apartment. Then I decided to leave my home in Colorado for a new one in France. I sold, discarded, and gave away the majority of my possessions and left for Europe with a suitcase and 27 boxes. Most of them filled with books.
Me, my cat, and my 27 boxes crammed into an apartment in Paris that was half the size of my Colorado abode, and we shared that space with my new husband, Olivier, and all of his stuff. I often missed my own furniture and resented living only on his. Every time the métro was too crowded, I longed for my car. After a few years passed, we left Paris for a quieter suburb, and did what many people do: we moved into a bigger apartment that had more room for stuff. When we filled it, when that place could no longer contain our various and sundry collections of necessary and unnecessary things, we upgraded.
We moved out of our rented two-bedroom apartment and bought a a four-bedroom house in the countryside. Now we had an enormous yard, a shed, a garage, an attic, a fireplace, two bathrooms, a guest room, and a bedroom. An office for each of us, a home gym and crafting room. All this, for two people. With all this space, we spread out, and spent the next four years filling that house. Shopping. Building. Acquiring. Increasing our ever-growing pile of stuff. I became depressed. My writing suffered.
For four years, we remained in that house. Then we decided to move here, to England. At first, the process seemed daunting. I was no stranger to long-distance or international moving, but this time, it was different. There was so much more stuff involved. Too much stuff.
One day, a couple of months before moving day, my husband and I sat in the living room, looking around us and discussing what we were leaving behind.
“I work all week, then I don’t even have time to enjoy my weekend,” he said. “There’s always something to be done. The lawn needs mowed. The shutters need painting. Something needs to be repaired. This house is too much work. It’s just… too much.”
I nodded. “This house cuts into my writing time. It’s so big, there’s always something that needs to be cleaned, or fixed. Some people don’t mind all the housework, or working in a garden, but I’m not into it.”
“It’s not us,” he said.
“Nah. It’s not us at all.”
And with that, we knew we were making the right decision. We began going through the house, and started getting rid of things. We sold, donated, gave away, and threw out. Once again, getting rid of things to make room for a new life.
I’ve been a regular user of Highbrow for a while, and during this time, on a whim, I subscribed to their 10-day introduction to minimalism.
I had Olivier bring down some of my boxes from the attic. I was overwhelmed with letters, photos, and childhood miscellany. Things I had been dragging around with me for almost 40 years. And for the first time, I did something that had never occurred to me before. Instead of boxing it all up again, one by one, I looked at each item. And I started tossing things into the trash.
At first, I didn’t put much thought into it. I was operating on instinct. A few things, I wanted to toss out, but was afraid of losing the memory. So, I picked up my phone, snapped a photo, and then chucked it.
It felt amazing.
I didn’t discard everything in a flurry of rapid tossing and picture taking. I looked over each thing one at a time. A few that were especially significant to me, I photographed, then added the photo to my Day One journal, along with a paragraph or two about the story behind the thing. Because the important memories of the things aren’t held by the objects themselves, those memories are in us, and can be preserved in other ways, like a photo or story.
When the movers finally came and packed everything up, we stood in front of the pile. Olivier said our lives looked much smaller once they’d been packed up.
“Are you kidding me?” I said. “This looks like a ton of shit.”
Suddenly, it seemed as though I was seeing the word “minimalism” everywhere.
I talked to Olivier about it, about how we’d both developed a habit of holding too tightly to things we don’t need, how the things we owned were actually owning us. Thankfully, he was all for the purge, too.
We likely won’t be here in this house for an extremely long time. While this place is smaller than the house we just left behind in France, it’s still a bit bigger than we’d actually like. As soon as we moved in, I began donating. Throwing away. Giving away and selling. As I unpacked, I began to see more and more that we could do without. And I’m just getting started.
Will we go completely hardcore minimalist, whittling our possessions down to a handful of items that fit in a knapsack? Will we move into a tiny house with bare walls? Probably not. We still want to keep some things. We still want to have enough space so that we’re not constantly bumping into one another. But, we have realized that building a life doesn’t require a certain amount of “stuff” or square footage. For us, it does require a certain amount of free time not spent maintaining our shit, or being able to pack up that shit to move on to the next adventure more easily. It requires freedom from a mortgage and car payments.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that dollhouse. For so many years, I believed it to be lost forever and it pained me. After I moved away, my grandparents eventually had other grandchildren, and gave the dollhouse to one of my cousins. It still had a little girl to play with it, and the memory of it was never lost to me. Each piece of tiny furniture held a universe of adoration. Every small human figure and carefully cut piece of fabric, another echo of love from my grandfather to me. And I still remember that, because memories do not live in our things. They live in us, in our stories, even today, after the dollhouse, and my grandparents have all passed on.
Stuff is temporary. Freedom is priceless. Stories are forever.