When Your Possessions Possess You

On a hot and sticky late afternoon this past May, three days before graduation, I sat surrounded by my things. My friends were out-skinny dipping in the Exeter River, smoking in the Academy woods, taking pictures next to the cherry trees which dotted the gently sloped hill behind my dormitory, or doing one of a number of other gloriously stupid things that high school students do —and, instead of making a few last memories, I was stuck.

My dorm at Phillips Exeter Academy, Langdell Hall

 

My three years boarding at Phillips Exeter Academy weren’t entirely happy ones. They were the days of stress, days of struggle. I wrestled with the turmoil natural to all adolescents. I sat through many a therapy session, made countless vision boards and bullet journals. There were days where I, simply, felt crushed. My room, every year, had been an imperfect sanctuary from which to hide from these turmoils. But it reflected my turmoil instead of shielding me. I had failed to take care of it—to take care of the things which I relied on during those days. And now, it was glaringly obvious that I had not been taking care.

My room was always superficially clean. Upon a first glance, it might have appeared orderly, but if you looked under the bed, opened a desk drawer or my closet, the truth would quickly become apparent: I was a mess, and so was my room. I had piles of sweaters, too pilled to wear. I had rough drafts, tests, and worksheets—shoved into the desk or fallen between my bed and the wall. I had mismatched socks, unwashed dishes piled on my mini fridge, clothes which I hadn’t worn for several years. I had, exactly, 126 books, accumulated from three years of literature-heavy classes. I had a dozen throw pillows, throws, and old or used up makeup. Most of the time, my closet hid a pile of clean clothes three feet high, which I had never bothered to put away. I had so many things that I was constantly cleaning, and yet my room was constantly a dump.

Every morning was a rush, not a rush to get ready or walk to classes, but to search for the few things I actually needed in the hurricane of excess.

I grew up in a cacophony of anxiety: anxiety about my family’s finances, social interactions gone awry, worries about the future and events still very much intangible, anxiety over my weight, or my teeth, or a number of other fixtures of my appearance. My anxiety is not well hidden. My teachers, vocal instructors, and dorm parents often commented about my lack of true confidence -in myself and my work- and my unbelievably frequent self-criticisms.

My room was, for so long, a physical representation of this. I hadn’t invested time in the things around me because I had been hesitant to invest time in myself. I needed to begin to think of myself, and my things, as worthy of care. When you are surrounded by things that you do not love, possessions or people, you forget so easily that you are worthy of love. It is easy to forget who you are when the things that do not define you, things which need to be let go, are the only things that are within view.

My room, senior year, on a good day.

 

There are, in reality, very few things that I own which bring me true and unbridled joy. The pictures of my boyfriend on my bookshelf, a soft, baby blue sweater given to me by Tess, one of my best friends, my trustworthy coffeemaker, my faux-fur throw on my bed. These things are so easily hidden by the things I do not love— by the things that need to be let go and passed on.

My anxiety—the constant “what if's” (“What if I end up needed that?” “What if I regret giving this away?”)—did not like letting things go. I, for a very long time, did not trust myself enough to give, to take out the garbage, if you will. The things I did not want or need, the things that did not spark joy in me, had piled so heavily upon me that I felt suffocated. I never considered the only important question in this situation: do these things make me happy?

Most of them did not.

Then something changed. I read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. This book changed me. For the first time, I realized that most of what I had been clinging to these past three years had gone unused, unappreciated. By the end of that afternoon, I had filled five garbage bags (I’m talking about the huge, 50 gallon, hefty bags—not the tiny dorm ones) of trash, and four more full of donations to be left at goodwill. By the end of the summer, I had given away another six trash bags full.

Even as I write this, in my shoebox single in my new dorm four months later, I know I need to let go of much more. I have shoes which are too worn to wear, dried-up paints, useless flyers. I need to dust a few things off, vacuum my rug, and clean the mirror. But, I don’t feel crushed anymore. I feel like I have been walking up a mountain for a very long time, and I can finally see how high I have climbed. After I go through my desk and give a few things away, I will only be surrounded by things which I loved. I won’t be weighed down.

My dorm room, freshman year at Kenyon College.

 

Humans are painfully and naturally imperfect. I’m still lazy sometimes, and even a little messy. But, because I am surrounded by only the things which I love, I am quick to clean, to fold clean clothes and tuck them away into their drawers. I am careful not to let the papers I really need get lost, but rather each one has its place. I recycle the papers I know I will never need to look at again.  I actually like tidying my room after a long week and making my bed each morning. I have only 12 books now; the rest have been sold, put on my shelves at home in Oklahoma, or given to my sisters. My makeup is organized, and nothing is expired or empty.

I worried when I got rid of things for the first time that I would miss what I no longer had. However, I don’t. I don’t miss anything. I can barely recall what I gave away- except for the sheer mass of the total sum. The truth is, space, mental or physical, given to that which does not give one joy is space that is wasted. When you open the door to your room, can you truly say that you love everything that you see? When you open your drawers and your closet, do you wear everything that is there? The truth is, you must trust yourself. You know what brings joy to you. You know what doesn’t. This confidence of knowledge is hard. It was especially difficult for me, but I’ve never regretted trusting myself enough to let go.

I’m still a work in progress. “What if’s” are a very tricky beast to kill. But there is no comparison to the pride I have in my room now, even though it is easily less than half the size of the one I had at Exeter. I’m excited to welcome people in, to show off the things that bring me joy and the memories that accompany them. I have no piles of clothes in my closet, no heaps of paper from years past under the bed. I have nothing to hide.

In the morning, I’m excited to wake up and open my closet. I don’t have to rummage through piles of old and unwanted clothes anymore—the things I love are always available, and I know where to find each one. On my bookshelf, my eyes immediately go to my favorite things: a few books, my favorite jewelry, a few pieces of pottery, and three mugs. I know this is still a lot; I have much more than I need. But there is no comparison to my room now to what it used to be. You don’t have to be a severe minimalist to be surrounded by things that you love. You only need to know what brings you joy.

 

Image Credit: Author's Own