For the past 30 years, through six different homes, I kept two large boxes. Inside was an unimaginably huge set of Limoges china dishes, white with royal blue and gilt edging. It had belonged to my wealthy aunt and uncle, who used them when they hosted their elegant dinner parties.

There was just one problem: My husband and I never hosted parties like that. Ours were informal, open-ended events where we put out food and drink and let people help themselves. When it came to dishware, we tended toward the disposable and the dishwasher-safe. Still, for 30 years, in the back of my head, I'd clung to the belief that someday I would grow up and have "proper" parties with fine china.

That worked, more or less, until a few weeks ago. My husband and I are moving from our former home in Woodstock, New York, to a new home in the Seattle area (I'm writing this from Ellensburg, Washington, on the last leg of our journey). That meant everything we owned had to either be packed into a container for cross-country shipping, given away, thrown away, or sold. It was past time to let go, not only of the dishes themselves but of outdated beliefs about who we were and what we needed to be happy.

But it wasn't easy. It wasn't just the fine china, it was the nice clothes I kept thinking I'd wear someday, and the broken items my husband had been planning to fix. It was the identities we'd built in a place we'd both lived in or near for most of our lives.

All of that, though, was standing in the way of our dreams. Bill is a musician, and it's clear that there's more opportunity for him in the Seattle area than there was in our former home. He needed to move in order to be happy, and his happiness is necessary to mine.

We struggled to let go of the items and ideas that were holding us back. We finally did it, but our departure was delayed by more than a month, and we still wound up leaving our house filled with stuff that needs sorting, storing, and in large part, throwing out. But at least the Limoges dishes have gone to a friend who specializes in selling vintage items. I've finally faced the fact that I'm as grown up as I'll ever be, and our parties will forever be too informal for fine china.

We spent too much time and way too much emotional struggle getting rid of what was weighing us down. Here are some questions I wish we'd asked ourselves sooner:

1. What purpose is this item serving?

If you can't easily say how your life is better--right now--with this item than without it, you probably don't need it.

2. What belief does this item support?

I could try all I wanted to believe I was the sort of person who would serve my friends dinner on fine china. Or use that pizza stone stored in the back of a kitchen cabinet. Or learn to play squash someday. It was my beliefs about who I should be, who I wanted to be, who I thought I ought to be in direct conflict with who I actually was. Before I could move on toward the life I wanted, I had to give up that struggle. I had to admit defeat. I really never am going to learn to play squash, so there's no reason for me to have squash rackets.

3. What's the worst that can happen if I give this item up?

All pack rats know the answer to that question: "I'll wind up needing it later!" And that's true. It's always possible that you'll wind up needing an item six months from now that you disposed of today. Who knows, maybe someday I really will start baking pizza.

But if I do, I can buy another stone then. Because hanging on to things against the possibility that I might need them someday isn't worth the cost. What cost? This fall it cost us the nice, relaxed, trip we meant to have a month ago. If we'd been traveling then, we would have had the time to take a few tourist detours. We'd have had better weather for camping. It would have been much more fun.

It's also cost us in work on our house, in storage, in use of our garage, and in general anxiety. Hanging on to stuff just isn't free.

4. What's the best that can happen if I give this item up?

Getting rid of outdated items, outdated notions, and outdated attachments is never easy, but it almost always comes with a payoff. You get more space, more time, more freedom. Removing something old that isn't serving you anymore is the necessary first step to finding something new and better.

So here we are, having sold or given away so much of what we had. Our reward is that we get to start a new life in a new place, and create a new home with new friendships and new traditions and much, much less clutter.

What would you gain if you gave up whatever is weighing you down?

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Published on: Nov 3, 2014
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