The Upside of Downsizing

One of the reasons we moved out of our last house in Virginia was that, although it was gorgeous, beautifully sited, and roomy as all get out, it was just too roomy for us once our children grew up and left. But although our children had left home, a lot of their stuff remained, and when we were packing to move across country I kept having to make decisions about theĀ  boxes of Lego, Breyer horses, soccer trophies, old report cards, baby clothes, bureaus, fencing gear, fabric, jigsaw puzzles, board games, and tons of books. All of this stuff, to take or not to take. That was the question.

It should be easy to throw old stuff away, but sometimes stuff is not just stuff. It’s stuff with a past, and when you toss it, a little bit of your past goes with it. Sometimes that’s a good thing. But sometimes, you wonder. I mean, consider stuffed animals. Every parent buys these for their kids at some point. And other people give them to your kids. Before long you have closets full of the things – and you can’t get rid of them. In these germaphobic days almost nobody wants a used stuffed animal. Yet to toss these once-beloved toys in the trash seems wrong in so many ways.

However, once the moving process picks up speed, you run out of time to linger over sentimental attachments. You just have to throw stuff out or stuff stuff in boxes and hope you can remember where the important stuff is once you get to your destination.

Stuff. It’s everywhere. It’s everything. But some stuff is more important than other stuff.

Recently, we’ve been trying to clear space in our small house and I’ve been going through some of those hastily filled boxes which made the trip west with us. I still have trouble letting go of old letters, photos and some books. But as I’ve been learning to let go of more stuff, I’ve become interested in the fate of all stuff, and the mystery of how we came to acquire so much. When my husband and I started out together we could fit everything we owned in a Dodge van, with room for our dog too.

In 1807 the poet William Wordsworth wrote “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” describing the trap of materialistic consumerism long before the word consumer was commonplace. The getting and purging of stuff has become such a fundamental activity in this country that few people remember how they spent their time and money before there were credit cards and online shopping 24/7.

Annie Leonard hopes to change that. Leonard launched The Story of Stuff Project ( in 2009 to help educate people on the true costs and consequences of the ravenous consumer cycle in which the modern world is trapped. In her 20-minute video overview Leonard gives a lucid analysis of the complex problems which arise from the current system, and she also offers some hope for solutions.

It’s not too late. There’s stuff we need, and stuff we can live without. The Earth is not a huge planet, but if we can get back to concentrating on the right stuff, it could still be roomy enough for all of us to share the good stuff.

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