14 items – or less

How a baggage disaster put me on the path to less stuff.

At the beginning of my college summer trip to Europe in the 1970s, I got off the red-eye flight from Los Angeles in Brussels. At baggage claim, I blearily watched through the crowd as suitcases went by on the clacking conveyor belt. Suddenly, something that looked awfully similar to one of my dresses appeared on the belt, all by itself. Then a camera I could swear was mine went by.

In a panic, I pushed to the front of the crowd as my backpack sailed by, opened to the skies – and flat. I grabbed it and as many of my other belongings as I could find. A flight attendant who'd been calmly placing garments over her arm handed them to me. I thanked her and stuffed it all into my pack. Anxious to go because my traveling companions, Monica and Dave, had been waiting several hours for me, I hustled out.

After we boarded a train, instead of calming down, I felt a growing sense of dread. I started rummaging through my pack. My heart sank. Only about half of the clothes I'd packed were there.

I figured I could buy what I was missing. But as we drove through small towns in France, Spain, Italy, and Switzerland, somehow I never got around to it. Sightseeing trumped clothes shopping.

I traveled for a month with the following items: a pair of jeans, a pair of shorts, a dress, a T-shirt, a turtleneck, hiking boots, sandals, a sweater, two pairs of underwear, a pair of socks, a bathing suit, a sleeping bag, and a towel.

But it didn't bother me. I never felt embarrassed, inadequate, underdressed, or dirty. In fact, I marveled that having so few clothes worked so well. Those 14 things took me to the Alps in Switzerland, beaches in Spain, and museums in Italy. I got a secret kick out of knowing that the dress I wore to the museum was also my nightgown.

I'll admit that drying off after a shower with the same gritty towel I'd used to lie on the beach was mildly uncomfortable and weird, but hey, I just considered it an exfoliating experience. I vowed to hold on to this great life lesson – that it's possible to get along with less.

And I did, for a while anyway. When I moved to New York City in my 20s as an actress, my mother sent all my possessions in one steamer trunk. But each move since – and there have been many – I've used a slightly larger vehicle: a Volkswagen Beetle, a sedan, a van, a small U-Haul, a large truck, and for the last, cross-country one, a commercial moving van. (Still, my possessions only filled a quarter of it.)

It's been decades since that Europe trip. Even though I've never been a clotheshorse or a pack rat or had a whole lot of money, somehow I've accumulated a fair bit of stuff: the scratched Beatles albums, boxes of clippings from my newspaper career, and now, my mother's china and silver.

Dealing with my mother's things as I helped her downsize was a wake-up call to the perils of accumulation. It got me looking, gimlet-eyed, at my own belongings. Do I think my daughter will read those clippings? Yeah, right. I don't want to leave her with a lot of stuff to deal with. More than that, I want to recapture the feeling of lightness and freedom I had that summer in Europe.

To a point. I'm intrigued by people who commit to having only 100 things in their lives, but I can't see myself joining them. And while I love the Tiny House movement, realistically I think the smallest I'm willing to go is a one-bedroom. Maybe a studio with a Murphy bed.

I want to travel the path to freedom from possessions, but as a pilgrim, not a fanatic. Changing one's relationship to stuff is a journey that lasts a lifetime, and it's made one decision at a time. I'll start small, by asking, Do I love this (sweater, book, vase)? Is it useful? Would I miss it if it didn't make it off the plane? That seems like a good first step.

Look out, closet.

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