Thursday, February 14, 2008

Designing Your Life: A Blank Slate

Let's begin with a brief meditation on disaster:

What if, Heaven forbid, your house burned down? What if you lived in earthquake-prone California when "the big one" hit and your house was at the epicenter? What if your city suffered a flood, a tornado, or a hurricane and all those inevitable, interminable news reports focused their cameras on your now non-existent home?

Okay, these are dramatic scenarios that, thankfully, are unlikely to affect the majority of us, but they're not impossible. So let's use our imaginations. How would you feel if you had to start over again? We'll say you were insured and have a reasonable chunk of money to complement the only possessions you now own: the clothes on your back and perhaps one or two mementos you managed to grab before disaster struck.

First of all, let's consider what those one or two mementos might be. Imagine that you must make a split-second decision to grab something and run. What would you grab and run with?

Of course, you'd make sure that your family members were safe, and your pets, but what stuff would you grab? I think many of us would immediately head for a favorite photograph or an entire photo album if we could. Photographs are precious memories that document our lives, so this makes perfect sense.

There might be a special piece of artwork or a small memento that had such significance that you felt compelled to save it. These are also logical choices.

So, now let's imagine that you're standing outside, away from danger, family and pets safely huddled together and your one or two mementos clutched to your heart. As you survey the scene and reflect on whatever has just put you in this dramatic situation, what would you be thinking?

I believe that you'd be grateful to be alive and feel lucky to have had the opportunity to save whatever small token of your life you chose to rescue. And, while certainly feeling a bit melancholy about your loss, I can just about guarantee that you'd say everything that really mattered was right there with you. All that had been lost was only stuff. Your priorities would be clear in a way that they may never have been in the past.

Ideally it doesn't take a disaster for us to get those priorities straight. In fact, some people make choices that are dramatically life-altering and reflect those priorities. Now let's imagine you're one of those people. What if you decided to sell everything?

What if you decided to auction all of your possessions so that you could move to the west coast, as Minnesota resident Lisa Perry did last year? Ms. Perry listed one lot of three hundred or so items on eBay and had this to say: "I've been schlepping this stuff across the country for more than 20 years. I'm tired of thinking: 'Oh my God, what if it breaks in the next move?' Who cares? I think it will almost be scary how liberating it will be." Ms. Perry was unable to sell the entire lot in the auction, but she was undaunted and decided to list individual items again as well as offer some on Craigslist. According to her blog, anything left over would be donated. And, yes, she did make it to California.

Artist and Iowa grad school student John Freyer was preparing to move back to New York when he created the "allmylifeforsale" project in which he "explored our relationship to the objects around us, their role in the concept of identity, as well as the emerging commercial systems of the Internet."

According to Freyer, "This was an online project that started October 2000 when I invited about 50 people to my house for an 'Inventory Party.' They sorted through my things and helped me decide which items best represented my life in Iowa City, Iowa. I have gone through the process of listing every thing that they tagged and more. I listed the Allmylifeforsale.com domain name on August 1st, 2001 as the final item of the project. A main component of this project is following where all of my stuff is going. I am asking all of the highest bidders to provide the readers of allmylifeforsale with an update on the piece of my life that they acquired. I am also keeping track of where all my stuff is going on a huge wall map. I am planing on visiting some of my life wherever it ends up, maybe at your house? You can keep track of where I am and where I'm going by visiting me at Temporama."

In the fall of 2002, Bloomsbury Press published a book about his project which they promoted with a significant question: "What do you do when your material possessions start to weigh on your sense of freedom?"

Have your material possessions started to weigh you down? Would it take a disaster to get you to part from them? Would you consider voluntarily selling everything? Most importantly, what would you do if, for whatever reason, you had a blank slate and were designing your life right now, exactly the way you want it to be?

I think you'd do exactly what I would do: create a life with less stuff and more freedom.

Am I right?

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

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