HOW I LEARNED TO LIVE SMALL, Psychology Today 2012
Updated: Jul 9, 2018
I documented my life by collecting things—letters from friends and old boyfriends along with a series of notebook diaries, but also every check and credit card statement since the '80s and every ratty, dog-eared pad from every interview I ever did. I saved vinyl LPs and political buttons from high school; the patched, embroidered jeans with the sexy knee holes from college; my kids' artwork from every epoch; and the mugs, snow globes, and other kitsch picked up on rambling family trips to places like Tijuana and Niagara Falls.
I wasn't a hoarder—I didn't save old newspapers, junk mail, or plastic bags. Instead, my collection was personal, a kind of journaling through stuff later consigned to dark closet corners and the spaces between socks in dresser drawers. Inhabiting a series of ever-larger apartments and eventually a house with an attic that spanned its length, my collection grew.
After selling that house, my husband and I moved to Brooklyn, to a warren of rooms so cramped that our possessions obscured the windows and blocked our escape out the door. We could have put things in storage, but scanning a wall of boxes from a gorge that was really the floor, I knew I had gone too far. In the age of iPad and Kindle, we owned thousands of printed books, many of them review copy freebies from my work in publishing. My children, now young adults, had also left a trail: hundreds of limbless action figures, musty stuffed animals, jerseys emblazoned with teams named after pizza parlors and hardware stores—and the unyielding instruction that we maintain these possessions in our home (not theirs) till the end of time.
I had to take drastic action, and I wasn't alone. With foreclosed McMansions blighting the suburbs and gas-guzzling SUVs too costly to drive, with factories closing and jobs in free fall, survival meant flexibility and leaving excess behind. Just a decade before, Americans had fueled a frenzy of acquisition, pumping up shares in the dot-com bubble and collecting ski condos in Vail. The drive to acquire was so over-the-top that the self-storage phenomenon had soared to new heights, with one in ten families renting lockers for the overflow.