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Are We Still Ourselves Without Our Stuff?

What I lost and found as I prepared to move.

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Woman in home scene with items disappearing from illustration
Joanna Lawniczak
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My husband and I are preparing to move and by preparing, I mean organizing and discarding, and by organizing and discarding, I mean the Home Edit ladies would be proud of me, though I don’t think Marie Kondo would. But all of this has made me wonder: Am I still me if I get rid of the objects I’ve surrounded myself with for much of my adult life, the objects that I once felt defined who I am?

Waiting for a Sign

It’s been a slow process. We were ready to move out when the pandemic unexpectedly moved in. So, we postponed our plans and waited for a sign: a heart-shaped bolt of lightning ... cats and dogs going vegan ... or for it to start raining spaghetti and meatballs. Anything that screamed, Hey, you’re good to go. NOW.

While we hunkered down at home, the irony that I was simultaneously trapped and rescued by a house I’d long since outgrown was not lost on me. What once anchored us here — work and our children — no longer did. We were mostly just tethered to stuff I hardly looked at anymore. And to routine. There was comfort in that ... until there wasn’t, when I developed a profound longing for change.

As you might have suspected, the spaghetti-and-meatball rain never happened, but pretty much everything else did, including job loss. So as soon as I saw a tiny clearing in the pandemic clouds, I said let’s do it, and allowed the chips to fall where they may. My husband, who hadn’t been totally on board, acquiesced.

Now, here we are, sorting through our lives — and our possessions. Blame it on COVID-19, on age, on the length of time it took to get to this moment, but I’ve become neutral about the entire decision-making process, what stays and what goes. I’m Switzerland.

Sorting Through a Life

The objects I sift through are not divided into save and give-away piles, but instead, into categories: practical, decorative, family and personal journey. For each item, I ask myself the same question: If I were standing in an empty room, could I feel like me and be happy without you?

Most frequently, and surprisingly, my answer is yes. And I had no idea that I felt that way until now. Or perhaps it’s because it’s now — this time in history, this time in my life — that I feel the way that I do.

Want vs Need

In my youth I had endless lists of wants. Somewhere along the way, the wants became more about needs, and I learned how to separate the two, especially when I began dusting objects more often than using them.

I asked women via Facebook recently if there was something in their house that they really wanted when they were younger but that now they rarely use. The most frequent reply was (drum roll, please) fine china.

Small kitchen appliances were a close second — the holiday gifts we give and get such as juicers, waffle irons, rice cookers, air fryers, pasta makers, spiralizers, bread makers and instant pots. They all made the list of rarely or never used gadgets we coveted at one time.

Is There Something You Own That Defines You?

I also asked if there was an object in their home that they felt defined them. And, if so, without it around, could they see themselves the same way? The most frequent reply: family photographs. One woman summed it up this way: “They are strategically grouped in case of fire. I could lose everything else but I would be devastated if I lost my pics.”  

Here are some other responses:

My baton. I started twirling sticks as a tiny little girl and eventually got my first baton from what we called the 10 Cent Store. I went on to become a majorette in high school and my baton went with me to college and everywhere since. I’m older and stiffer now, but holding that baton reminds me of something I loved and something I could do well. — Liz

I have a pair of tiny red cowboy boots my Uncle Arthur gave me around 64 years ago. They were too small to wear even then, but he knew I loved Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. They go on display wherever I live. They connect me to my past, and are also very cute. — Beth

The eerily beautiful glass “sculpture” that we found in the burnt hulk of our dishwasher after our fire. It’s delicate but strong, with impressions of things that no longer exist. Even if it breaks or disappears one day, it’s an unforgettable symbol of survival, resilience, and transformation. I call it “the artifact.” — Risa

My mind went immediately to the mannequin head that sits in my kitchen. In late June of 2011, I landed in NY for a month-long sabbatical. As I stepped off the airport shuttle near Times Square, I saw her just outside a shop selling NYC souvenirs. She had a green foam Lady Liberty crown on her head. Her smile stopped me cold ... she gave me hope. It was a very traumatic time in my life — I was losing my home and my marriage, and my last child was leaving the nest. To this day she represents “the new me” that came home after those 30 days. I can’t help but smile every time I see her. — Lisa

So, do I plan on living in an empty house? No. Do I need and desire what I once did? No. Still, I’ll bring a reasonable array of belongings to our new place. Objects can enhance the quality of our lives from a practical perspective, and an emotional one. And enhancing quality of life is a good thing.

Also, as the mom of 20-somethings, my hope is that they’ll eventually not only want some of these belongings but one day will have homes of their own to put them in. And that we’ll have the chance to visit and revel in the memories they inspire, together.

Going through this process of giving up some of what I’ve collected has helped me gain something unexpected: a stronger, more defined sense of self. And that’s something I can take with me wherever the place I end up calling home.

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