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  • Dan Connors

Sparking joy and dumping stuff

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"That's what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get...more stuff! Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore." George Carlin

Recently, I went through a mold remediation. Mold had gradually permeated not only the walls of my basement but the furniture and dozens of cardboard boxes full of stuff. This realization caused an existential crisis of sorts, as we had to dive into years worth of accumulated "keepsakes" that had taken over our basement.

We have a fairly large basement, partially finished, and every room was crammed with things, most of which we couldn't or wouldn't let go even as we never used them. I only went down there in the winter to exercise, and was oblivious to the coming storm, thanks to my immunity to mold and its affects.

I sort of know how flood and tornado victims feel, as I watch them on the news, having lost most of their possessions. This was more of a slow moving disaster. I had to go room by room and make a determination if something was damaged, and then if it was worth trying to clean and recover.

To my shock and chagrin, the next step was dozens and dozens of trash bags full of stuff that we needed to get rid of. I spent the first week filling up our trash cans, the dumpster at work, and even some random dumpsters in the neighborhood. Finally, I found a recycling center not too far away and took them carloads of cardboard and paper, happier in the knowledge that at least this stuff wouldn't end up in a landfill.

Then came the professionals, who proceeded to clean out most of the remaining stuff in my basement, including the carpeting and some of the drywall. When they were done, a large container as big as a truck sat filled to the brim on my driveway. Where did all this stuff come from?

We've only been in our house ten years, though much of the stuff came from our previous house where we lived for another ten years. I've tried to be diligent about having garage sales and charity pickups to get rid of stuff, but when you raise two kids and keep a lot of things, stuff tends to pile up no matter what you do.

So now that the kids are grown, it's just us and our stuff. Am I my stuff? Does my stuff rule me or do I control it?

Ironically, I spent a good part of my life selling people useless stuff. I sold pretty giftware in a department store, and I really did believe it was beautiful enough to give people joy. And maybe it did. But now in the second half of my life I think people and experiences are much more interesting than things. I have no plans to replace my stuff, and am trying to get rid of some more of it.

There's something called the hedonic treadmill that explains a lot of the materialism and addictive behavior that poisons our society. Happiness fades according to the treadmill theory, and we constantly try to juice it up to higher levels with buying new stuff, taking alcohol or drugs, or looking for quick happiness fixes. The trouble is, new stuff eventually becomes old stuff and fails to excite us anymore (talk to any kid the week after Christmas). We fall backwards after a momentary jolt of happiness. True happiness comes from beyond the treadmill, coming from deep within and immune to daily ups and downs.

In a way, the mold did me a favor. Marie Kondo, the guru of tidying up, says that getting rid of things is an act of confronting yourself. "There are two reasons we can't let go: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future," she says. As you age, you have to let go of a lot of things- your childhood home, your parents, your first job, first love, first friends. Even the memories fade as they get further away.

The good news is the bad things get washed away with the good. My stuff is temporary just as my body is. If I choose to let it go, I affirm that something bigger and better will come into my life. Every day we get a chance to reinvent ourselves and apply all the lessons we've learned from our past. This blog is something new for me. I hope to experience many more new things before I kick the proverbial bucket.

As that enormous dumpster pulled away from my house I felt sadness but also relief. The mold problem was solved and my life was less cluttered. Now to figure out the things that truly matter while I still have time to do it.

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