Panke Hopkins
Panke Hopkins

Earlier this month, some good friends put their beautiful Queen Anne house on the market. Because they are downsizing to a smaller home, they went through the process of selling some of their things, giving others away and tossing items that did not fit into either category.

As I walked through their empty, cleared home one last time, I felt emotion welling up in me from a deep place that I had all but forgotten. I spent a lot of time in that home over the years; going to parties, attending gatherings and visiting informally, and just hanging out with my friends. But it was more than saying goodbye to their house and all those memories that caused my reaction. I realized that my emotion hearkened back 11 years to when we, too, sold our Queen Anne home and went through the same process.

A house is a big box that you put things in to make it a home. So says my husband. And he’s right in a way. But it’s more than that. It’s a place where you raise children, celebrate holidays and life events and gather with neighbors and friends. It’s a place where you nurse family members through illnesses, cook favorite meals and from time to time remodel to suit your needs. As a friend of mine once said when she described leaving her home, “My children’s handprints were on each wall of that house.”

I felt intense grief when we eventually sold and left the house. The silence of those rooms was startling. The emptiness was a presence all its own. It felt like a death. I cried for days, weeks during the period of hard work, and then long after we walked out for the last time, to move onto our 42-foot sailboat — roughly 300 square feet of space.

But now, on the other side of all of that, what I gained was worth the pain.

I learned detachment; from objects, from habits, from patterns of thinking about what’s important to me.

I learned to live with less, thereby freeing me to focus on things other than, well, things.

I learned that there is always another chapter. And that chapter is filled with positive outcomes if you are open to them. New people to meet, new community experiences, a new way of understanding the concept of “home.”

My adult children visit frequently, something I feared would stop happening. We figured out how to do the holidays — different each year. I met people who live on our dock and gradually became engaged in our new neighborhood. But not at the expense of our dear friends from our 20 years on Queen Anne. Before we moved, a friend lamented, “I’ll miss you so much when you move to Ballard.” I felt stung and responded, “What do you mean? It’s 12 minutes away! I’m not moving to New York!” We still see our Queen Anne friends often, and there are times when our two communities overlap. Indeed, I believe some of our Queen Anne friends’ lives have changed a little because of our move. One of them just bought himself a boat, which he plans to live on, citing our life aboard one as his inspiration.

Reliving my own experience through my friends’ move definitely brought me back to a time that, clearly, is still not completely resolved, despite my confident words and attitude about downsizing. But I realize that missing something, feeling loss, does not mean you have made the wrong decision. There is more than one “right” answer to a situation.

Even on my little floating home I continue to purge, going through the boat several times a year and giving away things I am no longer using. I regularly hear friends talk about their need to purge. There is a reason that organizing consultant and tidying up guru, Marie Kondo, is so popular and that so many have embraced her technique. An article I wrote for Real Simple Magazine in April 2017 (realsimple.com/work-life/dramatic-change) on the same topic received numerous positive responses. It seems to me that people don’t want to be weighed down by their stuff, but also don’t have the time or knack for organizing.

Here’s a starter plan.

When going through a closet or room, ask yourself three questions about certain objects that you rarely, if ever, use: Is this something you use regularly and will continue to use?  Is this something you plan to pass down to your children? Can you get another one if you find you need one at some point?

Depending on the answers to those questions, you will be able to begin the process of purging long before you have to.

Irene Panke Hopkins is a freelance writer and essayist. Learn more at irenehopkins.com.