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Lessons in Impermanence: Letting Go of the Jacket – Can You Let Go?

“Anyone who has lost something they thought was theirs forever finally comes to realize that nothing really belongs to them.”
― Paulo Coelho


Without consciously doing so, we turn the things we own into symbols of who we want to be and who we once were.

As I started the task of minimizing my stuff, I envisioned that photographs or old journals would be the sentimental things that’d be hard to let go of when I move into the tiny house. But what I didn’t understand is how memories are embedded in our everyday things. I have had this faded brown jacket with metal buttons since college and it stirs up thoughts of who I was when I was younger; it triggers pleasant memories of chilly fall weather in Northern Wisconsin, where I was living at the time.

The concept of “impermanence” has its roots in Buddhism, which says that nothing is fixed or permanent and for everything, decay is inherent. It is like the old adage: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Of course we and the people around us are changing everyday, but what about our inanimate, physical stuff? I have a theory that a lot of these things (old clothing, books, trinkets) don’t change much unless they are used, and then they change with us–new memories are drawn up each time, new signs of use (stains, burn marks, tears) are imminent. Some people try to protect the things they own with the utmost care so they don’t break or get dirty, but I’d rather own a few quality things that are used well.


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Items that stay on the shelf, however, like my old well-worn jacket, become like dusty time capsules holding stories of who we were when we actually used those things, stories that are unearthed only in spring cleaning (or perhaps, preparing for your tiny house). It leaves me conflicted. At first, I think: Do I really want to get rid of this jacket and chance forgetting the memories of wearing it in Northern Wisconsin?

And then I think: Who wants a house full of dusty old time capsules?

If memories are balloons, then our “things” are the strings that tie them down to us. But after a while, all we are tugging on are cobwebs and dead skin cells. And it is time to dust off and clear out. The things we own have a life cycle–they live with us for a while and eventually, we let them go. This is healthy.

So for now, I’ve decided to consciously choose the items I keep, items that still have a lot of use left in them, ones that I wouldn’t mind making new memories with. In other words, let’s all say goodbye to the jacket.

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Cori is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin. She is planning on simplifying her life and building a tiny house this Spring. Follow her journey at TheTinyDream.com!




{ 17 comments… add one }
  • Cahow March 6, 2013, 10:43 am

    Nice article, Cori. May I add my story? I have a cherished friend who is a licensed psychologist and therapist. Among the many reasons why I adore and love Linda is that we have intense chats and we both walk away glutted with knowledge. One conversation we had, decades ago, was “Action vs. Reaction.” Basically, she said, “Problems to be solved are like a pendulum on a clock; there are two extremes when a pendulum swings back and forth, and the mid-point is the ‘point of rest’ or least difficulty. When you need to make a decision, DON’T “react” by going to the OTHER side of the problem but ACT and try to find a middle ground in the 180 degree swing of a pendulum.” She had NO idea how amazing her converstation was to me and how it’s guided me since the ’80’s when we had this chat. (I’ve since shared with her the significance of it to me.) So, when I get a “Bee In My Bonnet” about something and want to rush off and make “snap decision”, (which are the 180 pendulum swing), I take the time to stall my decision and just.wait. It’s amazing how clear my thinking becomes when I’m not hellbent on forcing an issue!

    I do this now with almost everything that has impact on my life, from tiny to large. No, it doesn’t happen when grocery shopping or getting gas for the car; mundane tasks are just that, mundane. But, to tie in your jacket topic, I have a similar story but with a different ending.

    I became obsessed one day with cleaning out the bedroom closet. Why? Who knows!, I just got twitchy and felt it had to be done. It was SO very simple to rid myself of shirts, tops, skirts that I never liked but bought for a special occasion, or were out of style, or I just fell out of love with….until….I came across my “Bee Jacket”. Like your faded brown jacket filled with memories, my Bee Jacket had the same “weight” of memories. In a colour that I should NEVER wear (screaming chromium yellow!) in a fabric NO ONE should wear (fleece!) and embroidered ALL over with bumblebees with little brass bee-shaped buttons, I had also had this since my teen years and wore it constantly until it just got too nappy to wear in public. My nickname is Bee, short for Busy Bee, which was my Granpa’s nickname for me when I lived with them on the farm. This jacket was the very last thing my Granma made for me before she died; she got to see me wear it for many months before she passed. Although the jacket is 30 years old, I still fit into it with ease.

    So, here I was, holding a fugly yellow jacket covered with embroidered bees, FILLED to over-flowing with memories: do I keep it or toss it? Well, I tossed it, finally, into the Salvation Army bag. And then took it out to the car. And then cried and cried and cried over that stupid jacket and ran back out to grab it and put it back on.

    Was it UGLY? You bet! Would I wear it out in public EVER again? NEVER, unless I was escaping from a fire and it was the LAST piece of clothing I had! Did it make SENSE to keep it when I have a bazillion other jackets that look good, are trendy and I wear out in public? Nope….it made NO sense whatsoever. And that’s when Linda’s chat came to mind. I had to remind myself that I had just cleared out our bedroom closet of 2 giant Hefty bag’s of clothes that we didn’t need! It was all heading to the Salvation Army to support that organization and help someone who truly needed them. This was ONE piece of clothing and fashion aside, I could truly wear it all around our house for a) warmth; b) walking the dog; c) filling the bird feeders; d) sitting out by the fire pit; or e) when I got a sudden chill. But the #1 reason why I decided to keep it was for precisely THE MEMORIES. The bees remind me of my Granpa. The embroidery reminds me of my Gran who sewed them onto the fabric, along with her adding the bee-shaped buttons. And the warmth that I receive, each and every time I wear it, is a (((hug))) from both my Grandparents, that I’ll never receive again, in this lifetime.

    So, I’m wearing my fugly jacket now, as I write this. Did I make the right decision? My heart says “Yes” as my pendulum is resting, mid-swing. As Linda would say, “Sometimes, the BEST ‘sense’ that someone can make is ‘non-sense’.” I don’t ever want to get to a position in my life where 100% of EVERYTHING ‘makes sense’. I feel that for me, I need a little bit of non-sense every now and then, to keep the joy and child alive within me.

    • Rostov March 10, 2013, 11:59 am

      Good for you! I would have been disappointed had you said you got rid of the jacket.

  • alice h March 6, 2013, 11:46 am

    The virtue is not in any particular way, in either keeping or getting rid of things, but in how well what you choose works for you and those you share your space with. The pendulum swing method makes a lot of sense. “Act in haste, repent at leisure.” What with too many moves, a house fire and the mysterious activities of unattended objects I don’t have too many things from far back in my past. I do have a huge hoard of fabric and craft supplies, most with some sort of intended project in mind at some point. Having worked in warehousing for a number of years I apply the same storage and retrieval principals to my own stuff so it’s usually quite simple to put my hands on a particular item in short order. Friends know they can often rely on me to have just the right thing for some obscure project and it’s very satisfying to dig deep in a box and haul out the very thing they were looking for. My usual calculations for deciding to keep or not keep are mostly based on the overall usefulness of the object, the likelihood of it ever being used and how easy it is to keep around. Sentiment doesn’t usually enter into it but aesthetic or functional appreciation do. Just the other day I dug into a cedar lined trunk and handed over about 10 yards of 60″ wide pure wool green plaid fabric for a friend that was sighing over not being able to afford such a thing. The look on her face was well worth the storage space it took up over the years.

  • Cahow March 6, 2013, 11:49 am

    “Just the other day I dug into a cedar lined trunk and handed over about 10 yards of 60″ wide pure wool green plaid fabric for a friend that was sighing over not being able to afford such a thing. The look on her face was well worth the storage space it took up over the years.”

    You gave me the LARGEST smile with that story, alice. Thanks for sharing it and I agree with what you wrote.

  • Janice E March 6, 2013, 2:39 pm

    I have had several items of clothing that I can no longer wear, are old and out of style but have wonderful memories attached to them — whether they were made by my mother (my first wedding dress), given to me by a sister, aunt or grandmother all or whom are no longer with us — so can’t let them go. I have started quilting and am now incorporating pieces of these ‘memories’ into a new quilt or a throw pillow. So the clothing is no longer taking up space in my closets and now gives warmth in other ways.

    • Cahow March 6, 2013, 6:32 pm

      Janice: Feel good about how you’re preserving your memories. That’s what USED to be done, back in the Old Days. Clothes were new and you’d wear them out. Then, you’d use them around the house or to do sloppy work like canning or gardening. After that, they were cut up into either quilt squares or cleaning clothes and after that, they were used as insulation in the chicken coop. One of my Gran’s favourite quilts she made me has my dresses I grew out of and some of my doll’s clothes, all sewn together as a Crazy Quilt. It sits on our bed in the Summer, because it’s so light weight and each year, I can’t wait to take it out of the cedar Hope Chest that was my Mum’s. Happy Sewing! That’s a skill I don’t possess. (I think it skipped a generation since my daughter is crazy about sewing.)

  • Ann March 6, 2013, 3:01 pm

    I find that a photo of a memory filled object can transfer the memories to the scrap book and a short note can go with it. That way those memories stay and the larger object goes with much less regret.

    I’ve a friend coming to visit to help me go through a storage unit of boxes with the camera at hand. Each afternoon we’ll sit down and print out the pictures then add them to the scrap book, write down notes, and send the objects to new homes. The plan is to turn a storage unit of stuff into a nice scrapbook of pictures and one box of the few things I need to keep. I’m looking forward to it. Doing this with a friend is so much easier!

    • Cahow March 6, 2013, 4:07 pm

      Ann: What a very smart idea! I know myself too well and it wouldn’t work for me: I’m a Sentimental Fool that must TOUCH my Gran’s belongings that she left me. For instance, both her father and her grandfather in Finland were Master Weavers. I own several woven rugs that are over 200 years old, that came on the ship from Finland with the family. NO PHOTO could replace my daily admiration for them on our bedroom’s floors. Another example: I own the wooden spoon that my Granpa carved for my Granma when they were courting and she said Yes!” I use it daily, multiple times per day and I feel my Granma next to me each time.

      Again, I’m a sucker for my family’s history and journey from Scandinavia, but I could see that your method would work for a great many people.

  • Carolyn B March 6, 2013, 6:12 pm

    Cori, good article. Commenters who precede me, I like your comments too.

    I find this a timely article as people and circumstances are begging me to think of right-sizing my environment to a smaller size with less independence but more assistance.

  • Robert March 6, 2013, 8:43 pm

    “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”
    Henry David Thoreau

  • LaMar Alexander LaMar March 9, 2013, 12:46 pm

    I learned to let go when I lost everything and I mean everything in an accident at age 35. I fell at a loss for awhile but then I reqlized how those things kept me tied to the past experiences instead of looking for new experiences like I did when I was younger.

    Now I don’t collect stuff and I throw stuff away or give it to charity if I have not used it in a year. Just not enough room for everything and if I don’t make room in my cabin and in my life for new experiences then I stop progressing.

  • Wayne March 9, 2013, 2:01 pm

    Check out “Clutters Last Stand” by Don Aslett for some very creative ideas about how to memorialize meaningful “stuff” without letting “stuff” dominate our lives.

  • jerryd March 9, 2013, 2:46 pm

    I love my stuff!!!! I guess I’m different as I make, save money by my things. For instance I was very sick, had no money and needed transport so I pulled a golf cart EV transaxle, VW rabbit tires, a moped front end and some batteries and ended up with a serviceable MC EV trike that costs $2/wk total to run.

    I’m building a 34′ trimaran to move on yet almost everything I need I got from the pile ;^P Other than plywood. I’m pulling a 3kw inverter, AC and DC electrical panels, batteries that all I have to add is a 1kw solar panel array, $600-1000 at sunelec and I’m even able to run A/C in the summer I need for health reasons and I don’t like to sweat lying in bed.

    I need faster, long distance transport so I pulled an EV motor/controller and a Kawa 750 Z1 MC from the pile that with $500 will turn into a 100+ mph 100 mile range EV Streamliner with a full aero cabin. I pulled a transformer and making it into a fast charger for $20. List would be $2k or more.

    I can go on but posesssions can be good by buying at cents on the $ selected things well before you need them, then you design you unit to the parts you got cheap you can have things you can’t even buy.

    Of course now I’m moving onto my boat I have to either use or get rid of most of the rest but I’ll likely double my money selling them off. So piles can be useful and even profitable ;^P

  • Florence Robinson March 10, 2013, 8:51 pm

    Thanks, guys, for the good ideas. When my daughters ask, “Mom, do you still have that—” I interrupt with, “Sure, have you ever known me to throw away anything?” Now, at 88, I see I really must begin to sort and pitch. My memories are enough to save!

  • Caroline March 11, 2013, 5:29 pm

    When it came time to sell my children’s baby stuff, I thought, how could I do it? Everything was so cute, there are so many memories attached to these things, so many firsts, so many stories. But they had to go–we live in a small, two bedroom rental apartment; there was no room for it all! So on to Craigslist they went. We took lots of pictures to post them on Craigslist. This turned out to be a bit of serendipity–the pictures, taken to help promote sales, also ended up being all that I needed to satisfy my need for attachment. I didn’t need a tangible object; all I needed was the digitally stored image. Every now and then I look at them and they make me smile as all the memories associated with them come back, too. Now if only I had the time to digitally preserve all of my film photographs……

  • Glema June 13, 2014, 6:28 pm

    Personally I treasure the comments my fellow Tiny House lovers leave of the precious moments in their lives. Of happy childhoods and warm loving family. You might make a necklace of bee buttons and beads to give to your own grandchild one day Cahow 🙂 Or a child you chance to meet somewhere in your travels that you just KNOW would appreciate a cute little bee on her neck. God bless you tiny house lovers everywhere! Happy trails!

  • Lindy June 18, 2014, 10:52 pm

    Cahow, loved your story as well.
    I get hung up on stuff all the time. Unfortunately, some of the Stuff is… a dining room table that was my aunt’s and my grandmother’s and my family used all during my growing up years; a desk made by my great-great grandma’s first husband, who was killed during the civil war; the huge bedroom set that was mine as a teenager; my mother’s big cedar chest…. sigh. None of which I really NEED; all of which I will have to leave behind in a tiny house. But I am not moving into a tiny house today, I am moving that direction I hope but not yet. So I am not faced with that decision immediately. Hopefully I will be more up for that then. And if I am never ready for a tiny house that’s ok too. I enjoyed everybody’s comments!

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