Sitting in the dim, grey hallway in front of my storage locker, I am overwhelmed by the containers stacked around me. The boxes have been labelled in black marker, crossed out and relabelled. I've shuffled the contents many times.
I open the nearest box and pull out a half-finished sweater I started knitting for a friend three years ago. What on earth should I do with this? I am moving out of my locker. By the end of this process, all my possessions need to fit in the car with the back seat folded down. But getting rid of my stuff feels a bit like I am tearing off a piece of myself.
I am transient by nature. I work for an outdoor leadership school, taking students into the wilderness for months at a time. I have hiked across Baffin Island, paddled rivers in the Amazon and packed horses into the mountains of Wyoming. I am ridiculously lucky, but sometimes I feel a little homeless. Between contracts, I come "home" to Nelson, B.C., but I never stay more than a month or two. Sometimes, fed up with my transience, I convince myself that I will stay in Nelson a whole year, get a real job and sign a lease. This idea never sticks. Another adventure rears its head and I take off.
When I got the five-by-six-foot storage locker, I felt grown up. I wasn't tearing out of town, leaving my stuff scattered across friends' basements, wondering if they would move or renovate while I was gone. Rolling down the locker's door, I clicked the padlock and didn't have to worry. The bonus: I could legitimately say I lived in Nelson. Having a storage locker was almost like having a permanent address.
But this past winter, I felt ready to part with the locker, and the $40 a month I paid in rent would buy a new pair of skis. In February, I drove back to Nelson to move out.
My friend, a therapist who was once transient herself, coined the term Storage Locker Anxiety Disorder - SLAD for short. She describes it as a cluster of symptoms including noticeable stress or anxiety when packing up and leaving belongings in a storage locker, or when going to a locker to deal with one's belongings. I have been a SLAD sufferer, cursing myself for forgetting something vital in the locker on a brief pass through town, and laying awake at night thinking about my accumulation of useless stuff.
Ending the relationship is rough. With so much moving around, I have a hard time feeling rooted in the world, so I have kept boxes and boxes of letters to remind me of places I have been and people I have loved. The boxes are labelled by year, and because they are neat I argue it is reasonable to keep them. Letting go feels like turning my back on the person I was when I received them. My best friend gently reminds me that I am not that person any more and tugs at a box in my hands. I feel resistant, but I know she is right. I hand over the letters.
It is ruthless. She shakes her head no as I hold up faded T-shirts from camp and the sweater my mother wore when she was pregnant with me. The rule is that anything I haven't touched in two years has to go. Hardly fair, as I have only visited the locker twice in that time.
The smell of must fills the chilly hallway as we open boxes and sort my belongings into piles to keep, give to friends or junk. I feel ashamed. The same pit grows in my stomach as when I came back from Brazil, where I lived among people who had less in their lives than I had in my backpack. When I returned home to my storage locker and confronted the amount of my consumption, I cried.
The junk pile in the hallway grows. I take my books to the used bookstore. While the bookseller sifts through my boxes, I gaze longingly at the titles on the shelves. Then I do a run to thrift stores, where they take a few worthwhile items and kindly send me away. No one wants my junk.
Feeling guilty, I drive to the dump and tip boxes into the slimy chute, watching cassette tapes and single socks mingle with the garbage below.
I burn the photos and letters on the front lawn of my friend's house. In a fit of creativity, I decide to film the fire, thinking that this might ease the pain of letting go. Sadly, the Super 8 camera I found in a flea market in Idaho has mould inside the lens and a faulty battery connection. My letting go goes undocumented.
The fire is a disaster. Toxic smoke billows in my face and wafts into the neighbourhood. Two hours later, clumps of melted photos still smoulder. Charred snippets of high-school letters are caught in the trees like confetti. I shovel the smoky mess into a box and sheepishly go back to the dump. I leave the camera on top of a pile of broken televisions, hoping that someone will find it and fix it.
I pack my new, lighter life into the back of the car and leave Nelson. I feel buoyant. Purging my stuff was hard in the moment, but not that hard. It's not like I discarded pieces of my being. I won't ever miss the things I got rid of. Truth be told, I still have more than I need.
Soon enough, stuff will creep back into my life. I will own half-finished knitting projects and broken gear I think I will fix some day. But I hope that the scene at the dump will stay with me. Maybe I'll accumulate more judiciously this time. One day, I might even turn the tide and be strong enough to pare down to only true essentials. I feel a bit adrift without the storage locker to anchor me, but I am grateful to be lighter - and SLAD-free.
Liz Hardwick is currently living in Boulder, Wyo.