To live life unburdened by stuff

By David Watts Barton, California Forum in The Sacramento Bee, May 30, 2015

I really did love my stuff. I even used a lot of it. And I had a lot: My gorgeous Victorian home in downtown Sacramento held closets full of clothes, a kitchen crammed with utensils, a garage full of sporting gear, a formal dining room, a roomful of records, even a library, floor to ceiling with books.
I had an RV, which was also full of stuff. So much stuff.
These days, I have a backpack and a duffel bag, and in them enough clothes to keep warm and look decent. I have an iPod, an iPhone, a Kindle, a down sleeping bag and a yoga mat. I write this on a Macbook Air, at a simple wooden desk, looking out a window at a gorgeous vista in the Tuscan hills above Florence, Italy.
It took a while to get here, and I’m not talking about the flight; I’m talking about getting rid of all the stuff. It was a gradual process, taking several years, but when I left for Italy in late March, it was finally done. I knew I didn’t need some of the stuff, but in the time it took me to get rid of nearly all of it – with some backsliding to furnish a studio apartment in Manhattan – I came to realize that I didn’t need much of it at all.
I told some of the backstory in the three-act, one-man show I wrote and performed in New York, “Underwater: The 100 Year Flood.” But let it suffice to say that, with the sudden deaths of my parents and of two of my oldest and closest friends, along with a timely job loss and the collapse of the housing market, I got a glimpse of the brutal truth: I am facing the third act of my life.
For those unfamiliar with dramatic structure, the third act is the last act. It is the climactic act, with dramatic possibilities for adventure and growth, perhaps even greater than those of youth, if we choose that course. Certainly, it will be the most challenging act. So why not rise to the challenge, and make it as good as possible?
For me, that meant clearing the decks, unburdening myself so that I could be, once again, as free to experience life as I was when I began my second act, 40 years ago, a time when I traveled free for the first time. Then, I was young and foolish; today I am much older and only slightly less foolish. But I’m smart enough to know that to travel free, one really must be – or can at least benefit from being – unburdened.
So: Everything must go, and so it went. During the process, I learned, among other things, that owning one thing often leads to the need to own other things (equipment needs tools for repairs; CDs need players; houses need … everything); that things that are pretty or have “sentimental value” had scant hold on me; that these digital days, books and CDs are just heavy wallpaper; and that I only rode one of my four bikes, and played one of my five guitars.
I also learned that many of these things, items that I had prized so highly, were worth very little, a fact confirmed by an eBay search. I learned that I got more pleasure out of giving things away than trying to squeeze out every last dollar. I had a party and gave books to everyone who came; I gave loads of things to the local SPCA thrift store; I gave kitchen stuff and blankets and furniture to some of the people in the halfway house across the street.
I haven’t regretted a single gift.
I learned that it is in the memories that the value lies, not in the things that spark the memories. I love going to visit friends and seeing my art and furniture and old collectables in my friends’ houses, often when I forgot I’d given it to them. But I don’t need the things themselves. I don’t, truth be told, even need the memories. I prefer to make new memories.
I have, of course, kept some things; I’m not literally down to a backpack. Some things are on long-term loan with close friends. My camping equipment lives in a corner of my sometime-roommate’s downtown Sacramento garage, ready for my annual pilgrimage to the desert. Everything else is in my closet-on-wheels, my 1999 Jetta, which still faithfully carries me up and down the West Coast and has everything from an air mat-tress and sleeping bag to a tool set. When I’m not on the West Coast, it sits in my cousin’s driveway outside Portland, Ore.
I still have stuff in a 4x4x4 storage space in Manhattan – clothes, towels, sheets, snow boots, a guitar and books (yes, books, still) – for whenever I land in what is still my professional base and my City of Dreams. For now, I stay with friends for short visits, and will sublet for longer ones.
I’ve got everything I need, and when I really need something else, I just buy it, which makes me question if I really need it. I’ve found that I really need nothing more than the few things I have.
These days, what I treasure most in my life are what I have always treasured most: my family, ever-ready to offer a bed and to welcome me, the Prodigal Uncle; and my dear, far-flung friends, who are so close that a text or call are all we need until the next time we’re together.
These days, when people ask me, “Where do you live?” I can only tell them the simple truth: Right here. Right now. Where else could I live?
What do I have? I have a body that is good to me – as long as I’m good to it – with a brain that loves learning new things and a heart that opens at the prospect of new friends as well as old. I have legs that carry me all over cities and hills and down long, unfamiliar roads. I have ears to hear new languages and eyes that thrill to new sights.
What I don’t have is much stuff. If you press me, I can easily conjure much of what I once had, and hold it in my mind as I once held it in my hands.
But mostly, I don’t think about it at all.