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Just don’t call me a tramp. It confuses my mother.

The day I bought that car, I knew what I was going to do with it: I was going to fit my entire life into it, and I was going to drive it a very long way, all by myself.

Right after I let my mom talk me into a variety of cheesy poses, of course. First things first.

I called it Operation Hobo: a quest to pare down my possessions to a scant 75 cubic feet of cargo, give or take the passenger seat.

I spent a year on it. I didn’t just downsize; I peeled myself like an onion, shedding previously unarticulated misconceptions about how much I needed to own to be happy. I said good-bye over and over again. I gave away the paintings on my walls, any fixture I could pry away, even the bed beneath me.

I even got a smaller toothbrush holder. Yes, really:

I threw out cards, notes, letters, and two entire garbage bags full of photographs (relax—I scanned my favorites). I did keep one card, from Kerri Anne, delivered to me at a very dark time, when my life was in a stomach-churning state of collapse:

The above is now the only framed image I own, but I hope you will agree that I chose wisely.

The joy of Operation Hobo caught me off-guard, I think. The most ordinary tea mug has a precious heft in your hands when you’ve chosen it so deliberately, when you’ve eyed a cluttered box of them on the floor of your kitchen, picked it up, and thought, this.

If you’re willing to forsake all else, you can build such refreshingly, sweetly nascent memories around what little remains. You can reconnect with what it feels like to have potential, to own more possibility than anything else, rather than accidentally transitioning into a routine of maintenance as the curator of your own maxed-out life.

I don’t mean to be condescending about people who own shelves of china and candles and … I don’t know, those decorative balls of glass that look like Christmas ornaments but are not Christmas ornaments. I don’t mean to sound as if someone’s life is pointless and suburban because they enjoy a good tealight holder and a nicely painted fruit bowl. It’s not like reducing my T-shirt count to four (yes, four) resulted in an automatic cure for cancer or anything.

All I can tell you is that I, personally, as an individual, was deeply unsatisfied with the way things were. I spent far too much of my time dusting my crap, arranging my crap, painting my crap, finding more crap I needed to go with my other crap, and suffering under the illusion that I would feel fulfilled and satisfied and happy just as soon as my life looked like something out of a Pottery Barn catalog and I were wearing the right pair of ballet flats and the most whimsical brooch.

If you have had a different experience, I will not only salute you, but I may also ask to borrow your flour sifter sometime.

I wanted everything to feel simpler. But, while a lot of wonderful discoveries came about as a result of Operation Hobo, I’m not sure simplicity was one of them.

The less you own, the harder it is to hide from everything still wrong with you. All of the dreams you have yet to realize, even now that your childhood is startlingly far behind you, are suddenly so much more starkly visible once you can’t distract yourself by petting fabric swatches or rearranging your bookshelves.

We’re always saying life is short, but honestly, if you stop staring at paint chips and shopping for throw pillows and arranging vases, if you have so little clothing (let alone accessories like scarves, necklaces, or earrings, of which I own none) that choosing an outfit is hardly an artistic endeavor, you would be surprised at how much time you have and how absolutely terrifying it can feel to have nowhere to put that energy.

You become almost the only particularly notable thing you own, and experimenting with rearranging a bookshelf into a rainbow pattern, it turns out, is far easier than experimenting with rearranging oneself. Where does one even begin?

I’m still figuring out what to do with myself now that my life has less to do with material things, and the alien, paradigm-shifting brain-meltingness of that task says a lot about our culture. It’s hard, but I’m still working on it, because I sincerely doubt that on their deathbeds, many people’s last words are, “I should have bought more stuff with sparrows on it. Oh, and that rug in the CB2 catalo—glaaaargh!”

The day I did it, the day I could finally fit everything I owned into my car, I climbed behind the wheel and laughed hysterically for about five minutes. It was hilarious and surreal and immensely satisfying to be able to carry all of myself everywhere, all at once, to steer it left and right and point it wherever I wanted it to go, and to have rid myself of more fear than I had ever known a person could keep within four walls.

And then, yes, I did drive it a very long way, all by myself.

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