The Things We Leave Behind (or Three Uses for Everything)

Last week, my friend Lois sent me a link to the show Tiny House Nation. Each week, Zach Giffin and John Weisbarth help people build and move into Tiny Houses–classified as under 500 square feet for the purposes of this show. Zach lives in a 112 square foot house himself and serves as contractor and custom-furniture builder. John does the requisite eyebrow-lifting when he steps into the first family’s 1300 square foot house, and then helps them to scale down–to the point that they can comfortably live in just 172 square feet.

During that first episode, in an effort to help a Jeff and Chelsea Kibert determine what to let go of,  John said, “If you don’t need it, you can’t keep it.”

Ha. I would have said, “If it doesn’t have at least three uses, you can’t keep it.” That advice was given to me two years ago while I was walking nearly five hundred miles on the Camino de Santiago. The pack on my back held everything I thought I would need for the next forty days. Weighing in at twenty-two pounds, however, I started to reconsider my choices.

Rick, a fellow pilgrim on the trail, told me my pack should only contain items with three uses. I immediately liked the idea. After all, I’m the woman who is mystified by–and refuses to purchase–single-use items.

So on days when I walked alone for a few hours, I challenged myself to think of three uses for things I had with me. The words of William Morris floated into my head: Do not have anything in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. Well, beauty wasn’t much of a concern along the Camino. But useful? Yes. Three times over.

A few days later, at a hostel in Tosantos, I met a fellow pilgrim named Becky. As we sat in the garden outside the hostel, our clothes swayed in the breeze on the clothesline. I shared the everything-must-have-three-uses philosophy with her.

“Only three?” she asked.

Only? Was she serious? Yes, indeed she was. Becky, I soon learned, was a master of packing light. She glanced over at the laundry line and gave me four uses for her bath towel. I was impressed. So far I had only used mine for drying me post-shower. And it didn’t even do that very well–probably because it was only as big as a legal-size sheet of paper.

By the time I finished the Camino my pack was six pounds lighter. Things I thought I needed for the journey (gym shorts, a second pair of hiking pants, a paperback book) had been left behind–and I didn’t miss any of them.

Last week, I watched Jeff and Chelsea decide what they would need on the next phase of their life journey–and knew that, like me, much of what they left behind would not be missed.




The Things We Carry

On Saturday, June 28, I stood in the foyer of the K & K Picasso hotel in Barcelona. I watched as my boyfriend’s brother Stewart stapled paper luggage tags to the suitcases he, his wife, his three children, and his mother brought with them for the twelve-night cruise upon which we were about to embark. I was stunned by the size and number of their bags–some taller than small children. And much wider. I tried to count them all but got distracted after I reached sixteen. Sixteen bags (or more). For six people. Three of whom were between the ages of 10 and 15 (which means they have smaller clothes than us adults). And it’s summer. (Summer clothes fold up much smaller than winter clothes.)

I was very curious as to what was in these bags. It was a twelve night cruise. Even if they wore a different outfit every day, and every night, I still couldn’t figure out what took up all that space. I wanted to ask, but I’d only met them the night before and didn’t think it appropriate to quiz them after just a few hours together. 

“Where are your bags?” my boyfriend’s mother asked me. 

Me and My Luggage

“Well, one is right there,” I said, pointing to my red carry-on bag which now stood in the midst of all the other bags like a dwarf in a forest. “And my backpack is over there,” I said, pointing out my 30 liter pack. 

“That’s it?” she asked. “For twelve nights?” 

“That’s it for three months.” I said, reminding her Michael and I arrived in Europe more than a month earlier and were staying for another five weeks after the cruise. She looked at me: her lips tight, her brow furrowed, not quite sure what to make of this woman she’d met less than twenty-four hours ago. I got the feeling this was not the time for a discussion about my minimalist efforts of the last ten years.

A few days earlier, while waiting for Michael to finish packing, I read with great fascination Ryan Nicodemus’s 21-day plan to minimize his life. Actually, it wasn’t the whole plan that drew my attention, but one thing in particular: the packing party. On Day 3 of his plan, he invited all his friends over to help him pack up everything he owned, as if he was moving out. Except he wasn’t. 

Over the next few days, if Ryan needed something, he found the box it was in (as all boxes were neatly labeled with their contents) and took it out. The idea was that anything he hadn’t pulled out by a certain time probably wasn’t something he needed anymore. He pulled items out each day until Day 10, when he found everything he needed was already out. 

I don’t propose everyone do this. Well, actually, I do. But I think the idea would overwhelm most of you. However, it is a great way to declutter a room. Or just a closet for that matter. Pack up all your clothes. When you wake up, decide what you want to wear and pull it out. Do this for a few weeks and you’ll start to eye things in those boxes that you know you’ll never wear again. Things you haven’t worn in years. Let them go. And that’s just your summer clothes. Do the same thing each season, pulling out what you need and donating or selling everything else. 

But me? I like minimalism challenges. And after reading Ryan’s post, I realized that, at that very moment, everything I owned was packed. It wasn’t all in the same country. Or the same state. But it was all packed. Two bags with me in Europe. Boxes of everything I’d used (or not) over the last two years were in storage in Asheville. Things I hadn’t touched in more than three years were packed in boxes in my parent’s barn in Poughkeepsie, New York.

And that’s when the idea struck. 

 Guess what I’m going to do upon my return to Asheville in August? And during my visit to New York in September? Hopefully, by the time Michael and I head off for another three-month adventure, I’ll have lighter bags (maybe even fewer?) and less stuff packed away around the world.