When people find out that everything I own is in my trailer or car, they just stare at me, then at the trailer. I get it, really, I do. That trailer seems small and the car is a Subaru Outback, not a big van or pickup truck. So then the next question is often “How did you do it?”
I started paring down my possessions to fit into the trailer two years before, although I didn’t know at the time that I was going to end up in an Alto trailer full-time. I just felt like I had too much “stuff” and it was weighing me down. Books I had never read, fabric I would never sew into quilts next to yarn I would never knit into sweaters. Bikes I didn’t ride much in the long Seattle winters, a kayak that was really only used the 3 months that summer made the waters calm enough I felt OK about paddling alone. And the clothes. Work clothes, camping clothes, hiking clothes, dressy outfits for weddings, shoes for all occasions, and socks and shoes enough to keep a small village well-shod. How did one person GET so much stuff, I asked myself, and I had no easy answers.
When I started the paring down process, I went at it blind, not sure if I was just getting rid of stuff to get rid of stuff and if I would regret it in three months when I wanted to wear “that dress” or create my sweater masterpiece with that collection of yarns. Then I found the KonMari method and things became way easier. I devoured the first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. It was fast reading because her method is basically simple: hold one thing and ask if it brings you joy. If it does, keep it. If it doesn’t bring you joy, let it go. There’s obviously more to the KonMari method than that, but that’s the part that really resonated with me.
First up were my books. I collected them from all corners of the house (and car!) and then put them on the floor in the dining room (the biggest space available), organized by type: Photography, space and astronomy, writing, and everything else. As I picked up each book in turn and really looked at it, I was amazed by how one emotion kept coming up: guilt. As in “I should really read this book” type of guilt because I had some of these books for a dozen years and not even cracked their spines.
So then the paring down process became, for me, about identifying and then letting go of assumptions: I don’t need to read all the books in the world. I had to face the truth that I was buying books as a way to say “someday I will do this thing” and the reality was I that I wasn’t doing any of those things.
So I took all the photography books and really looked at them. Did I need three different books that covered the basics of black and white photography? Nature photography? Probably not. So I looked at the three B&W photography books and saved the one that spoke to me as easiest to understand; the other two became the first items in what would become a rather large “book donation” pile. I did this for each subclass of photography book and ended up with a total of five books that were keepers. Five. Out of the twelve I started with. When I looked at losing seven books in the donation pile, I felt relief. I didn’t have to read those books. I only had five to read. I could handle that. From guilt to relief, I suddenly felt lighter. This Konmari thing was kind of cool.
I tried the same process with the writing books (almost two dozen of them!) and came away with six books I wanted to keep. Of all the astronomy books, three made the cut. And just like that my overstuffed bookcase was down to a shelf’s worth of books in one afternoon. Amazing. And with less books, it was less overwhelming to think of reading them, instead of being buried in guilt that I would never get through all those books in that bookcase.
From there, it was on to the clothes. Here’s where the joy proposition really paid off. I realized as I went through them that I bought things simply because they were my new (smaller) size, or I liked the color, but it was a rare item that was the “keep it” trifecta: it fit well, it was a color I liked, and it made me feel good when I wore it. When I was done, my closet had less than two dozen items on hangers and my dresser drawers were half full. And as a bonus, everything I saw was something I really liked. Getting dressed for the day became fun, because I actually only had clothes I really liked to wear.
By the time I decided to buy the Alto, I had also decided that living in a two-bedroom house with a full basement was too much house for me. I picked out a small one-bedroom apartment, with the goal of moving there in 60 days when my house lease was up so that gave me a time goal for going through the rest of the house and basement. In those 60 days, I sold stuff on craigslist, gave things away on freecycle, and became best friends with the crew staffing the local Goodwill donation truck. I sold my treadmill, my kayak (but kept the paddle because someday I will have another kayak and I love my paddle), the bike I rarely rode, TV and speakers and furniture and, well, anything that would not fit into a 490 square foot apartment.
Moving day, I had less than a small truckload to move, and the guys were kind of amazed to pull up to a house and find it was empty by normal American house standards. I was all moved in one load, three hours, and a dozen boxes mixed in with a minimalist amount of actual furniture.
Three months later, I decided that I was going to retire in a year and probably go live in my Alto while I traveled around seeing all the places in the US and Canada that I had not yet discovered. Thus began phase two of the paring down process: figuring out how to get everything I wanted or needed with me into either my car or a tiny trailer. I knew how small the kitchen was…
Some things would obviously have to go, but late in the process: couch, chair, desk, bed, and so on. Other things would never get purchased in the first place — another guest chair, a new dresser — because I would just be getting rid of them in several months. I started playing with storage ideas: hanging shoe holders and little boxes for bathroom items, and storing my clothes rolled up for easy access and less space using some of the more advanced KonMari ideas.
I even mapped out space in my big wide hallway of the two major storage areas in the trailer, and tried different combinations of what would fit in there: toolbox, telescope, plastic containers of books and clothes, guitar, and odds and ends. It became clear about halfway through Year Two of Downsizing that I needed to get really clear on what I needed versus what I thought I needed. I went back to the Marie Kondo books (now there were two of them!) and re-read how to get clarity on what I loved.
Hardest of all the things I had left were all the souvenirs I had collected from my world travels. Glass paperweights from all different countries, wooden bowls from a half dozen other countries, and tiny Buddha statues from Asian destinations were among the things I loved that had lined my shelves for years. As I put them all on the table, I realized that I could not take them all with me. First, much of it was glass and so breakable, which in a trailer was probably going to happen pretty easily. And second, there was just a LOT of stuff sitting there in front of me.
In the end, though, it is all just stuff. I learned that when my mother died several years ago. All the books she had collected and curated for decades became mostly “stuff” that my dad ended up throwing out, cartful by cartful over weeks, as he worked through his grief. So in the back of my mind, I was thinking no one else knew what this stuff meant to me, and no one would know, no one would care. And isn’t that the way with the things we love that are silly and small and yet, so precious to us?
I decided I would see if I could get it down to 12 things I would keep and see how that felt. Of all the things I worked to pare down, this was the hardest by far. In the end, I had to see that I was either choosing the vagabond life in a trailer, with its space constraints, or I might as well give up that idea now and keep all these things and stay in my apartment in a year’s time instead. Keep my eye on the prize, then. In order to fit into that trailer, most of these things had to go. I ended up taking pictures of them, and then giving them to people I love, so that they have something of mine, and when I come to visit, I can see those things.
The things I kept are the ones I could not bear to give away, not even to my closest friends. And it’s not because they are valuable or beautiful. They just mean specific things to me, or they are the most beautiful of the things that were sitting on that table. A tiny glass face, a white glass Buddha, a red heart from Murano that I had given to my mother, my favorite of four kaleidoscopes I owned, a glass piece that from a long-ago vacation in Key West, and a small geode given to me by my Seattle bestie.
I don’t put all these things out every day in my trailer, but they are close at hand, and over time I see them, they do make me smile. The things I gave away? Some of them I don’t even remember any more, after all that angst about letting them go. The Konmari method was true: the things I loved were the ones I kept, and the things I liked, given away, faded from my memory more quickly that I would have expected.
By the time the week came to vacate the apartment in May 2016, I was ready. Much to my surprise, it all fit into the trailer pretty well, with a bit of overflow into the back of the car.
Over the last seven months, I have continuously curated stuff in my trailer, getting rid of bits here and there: storage containers that didn’t quite work out, books I finished reading (yes, a few!), clothes that I no longer needed once I retired, and stuff I thought I would want in the trailer but didn’t actually need. Right now, I have four things in my car targeted for donation.
So there you have it, the winding road to paring down my possessions in order to fit into a tiny trailer. It won’t be the same for you, or anyone else doing it because what I love, and what I need, are never going to be exactly the same as anyone else.
The one true thing is that if you keep only the things you love,
you end up with only the stuff that makes you happy.