Monday, November 30, 2015

A Journey Toward Owning Nothing

In my post about How I Travel Indefinitely I offhandedly mentioned in the summary that I have come to an understanding that material possessions do not bring me happiness. It has been a slow road to this conclusion and I thought I would share it.


'Round about the year 2000 when the end of the world was nigh, I vividly recall my search to purchase and furnish a home of my own. I had been a professional business person for 7 years and it felt like time to own a home because...well...because renting is for losers, because renting is like throwing your money away. This is what we were told before the 2008 economic collapse. I mean, my younger sister had bought a place of her own and I was older than her so surely it was time for me to settle down and become a homeowner. Time to fulfill the American dream of owning my own piece of land, for what else would I do with my shotgun and rocking chair and propensity to yell at neighbors "Get offa ma property!"

And settling down. We were all expected to settle down.

I had a mental image I wanted to fulfill of a hip bachelor pad in an up-and-coming, soon-to-be trendy part of town. Of course I didn't want to live in the place that was already trendy at the time, because that would be like selling out. I wanted to live in the place that 10 years later people would say "Wow, you moved here before it was cool. I wish I were as much of a barometer of hipness as you are".

I believe there were a few drivers of this desire:

  1. Desire to display my hipness and sense of style
  2. Desire to meet a woman who would appreciate me for my hipness and sense of style
  3. Because I was just more comfortable living in such a place, just as for many years I was truly & honestly more comfortable wearing snap-up western style shirts (which allowed me to better relate to goths)
And I did it. I bought a sweet condo in a historical building that was being refurbished in the arts district two blocks from the river. It was the first such building in St. Paul and 2nd or 3rd including Minneapolis that was part of the urban condo renewal trend. I spent a lot of time and money finding the right furniture and right paint combinations and right kitchen utensils. It's interesting to look back on that time and realize how important all those visual details were to me. I used to walk by gorgeous, old houses or cool condo buildings and be a little envious because I wanted to live in each and every one of them. I wanted to experience their keen design first-hand.

For close to ten years I lived in that condo in St. Paul, MN. The neighborhood got more popular, just as I'd expected. And I sold it twelve years after I bought it for exactly zero profit. So much for riding the never-ending upward wave of real estate.

I still have that great admiration of beautifully designed things, but now I've become more comfortable just appreciating them and not desiring to acquire them for myself.

When I lived in an 1100 sq ft apartment in Bozeman I realized that I spent all of my time either in bed, bathroom, kitchen or sitting in my favorite chair. Looking back on my Kaizen corporate days and spaghetti diagrams, I realized that 80% of the space was simply waste. 80% of the space I had to walk through to get from the chair to the kitchen or the bed to the toilet. Sure, there are aesthetics like the gorgeous huge window that allowed me to look out to the Bridger mountain range. But still the space just felt too big to me.


My bookshelves were full of books, most of which I had read. How many of those books did I actually read a second time, necessitating a dedicated shelf on which to store them for future perusal? Only a handful. But I distinctly remember being proud of my book collection primarily in order that other people might see it and get a sense of who I was. "Ooh! He reads Steinbeck and Thoreau and travel guides to Kyrgyzstan. Sexy!".

Books were extremely difficult for me to part with until the advent of the Kindle. I was always good at donating old clothing, but books and furniture and records had their grip on me. Records still do to some extent. Year after year I clung to my books, perhaps donating one or two. Each year a novel or reference material would no longer feel as much a part of my identity or else it didn't fit in well visually with the rest of my collection. Only those could I part with.

After years of donating a book here or there, I realized the Kindle was the tool I needed to rid myself of this burden of displaying my self. This decision was also probably encouraged by the fact that in the prior few years in Bozeman, MT my bookshelf was, due to apartment design, not able to be displayed as prominently as in St. Paul. I could unload all of them, purchase a Kindle, and any that I still absolutely had to have I could buy on the Kindle.

Out of a couple hundred books there were exactly two that I re-purchased on the Kindle and I still enjoy re-reading them.


More difficult for me than books was furniture. I appreciate thoughtful design and it was only days before departing for long-term travel that I came to grips with the idea of allowing another person to appreciate pieces that I have had the pleasure of appreciating for 40 years.

These two chairs and the lamp were purchased by my parents in the '60s and have been a part of my solo home for the past 15 years.

I loved those chairs and lamp. Not only are they beautifully designed and comfortable, but they were a type of family heirloom. Prior generations of my family considered silverware and table place settings to be family heirlooms. For me it was these chairs.

But why should I be the only person to be able to enjoy them? And why should I keep them to myself for another 50 years and then expect my heirs to keep them forevermore? Why not allow them to be enjoyed by other families?

That was the conclusion I eventually came to, encouraged by the fact that I also didn't want to pay to put them in storage where nobody would even see them for who knows how many years.

The lamps (the one pictured has a partner) were the last thing to go because they were the only light source in my Denver studio apartment. Nobody wanted to purchase them on craigslist. A good friend took the chairs and the lamps went to Goodwill.


This whole process of simplifying my life and de-cluttering was greatly aided by the summer of 2014 which I mostly lived out of my van, Whitey. 
Whitey helped me realize that I could be extremely happy with only the simplest of living conditions, so long as I was parked in a beautiful place and had a friend to share it with. Again, I entered into this arrangement slowly and with great deliberation, unsure of how challenging it would be to live in a van and if the hassle of such a small space with few amenities would be worth it. It needn't be said that it obviously worked out for me just fine.

Spending time in the van made it easy to move into a 400 sq ft studio apartment for the first time. It was positively palatial! 


My journey toward owning nothing was taken in baby steps, first by getting rid of only a couple books that I thought I could maybe possibly live without. Each step became more and more freeing as I realized what is truly important in my life -- friends, beauty, and options.

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