Who Am I Without My Things?

What happened when one woman took the Marie Kondo purge to a dramatic new level


For 12 years, I lived in the same Brooklyn apartment with the same boyfriend, the same friends, and the same rituals. April, we planted the garden; July, the mimosa tree transplanted from his grandparents' garden spread its lacy canopy and bizarre pink pom-poms over our friends as they drank rosé in our inflatable pool, movies projected on the wall of the tyre shop next door. We gave our backyard its own social media page where we posted visiting hours. We ran a monthly Vinyl Club in October, Goth night; in December we gave out necklaces hand-crafted from 45 record adapters; and a grunge party on New Year's Eve.


Just past my fortieth birthday, I moved out. We took down the library, divided the records, his, mine, ours, each of us trying to be kind, to give the other something to hold onto in the new life; the plates on which we'd eaten birthday cakes, our favourite wine glasses, hand-blown, that felt like you held a heart in your hand. My best friend came with her Subaru, the mobile storage unit took the rest. I wanted to leave him the truck, used to pick up the wood with which he lined our dining room with my books, cement for the patio, but the week before I left Brooklyn, its engine blew up.


It took all of our thirties to build our life, and just one summer to dismantle it. It felt like a house fire, we both said so. But I had friends who had real fires that year, and I knew if there was a fire, I had set it. 

I had a new boyfriend. We were the source of all this trouble, equal parts comfort and co-conspirators, and we moved four times over the next 18 months: Vancouver, where he was working on a film; trains through the Pacific Northwest; a long cold fall in his tiny Iowa hometown hunkered down in an apartment building. That winter he was offered a fellowship in Berlin. It seemed as good a place as any for a woman who had become the villain in her own life. I packed a single suitcase, mostly winter sweaters. I didn't plan to stay past spring. 

Marie Kondo, a Japanese-American de-cluttering expert, extolled the virtues of the therapeutic purge in her cult, best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying: A Simple, Effective Way To Banish Clutter Forever. Her mantra: Does every item in your life spark joy? But while Kondo preached the art of subtraction, I took comfort in archiving and curating, stashing tiny reminders of past lives in unexpected corners where I might stumble upon them. I loved that I might take a book off my shelf and find a train ticket from San Francisco, pressed flowers from my mother, or a love letter, decades old, between its pages.


Last year it became clear that my joy was stacked in identical orange crates in a storage facility on Staten Island: the vintage pale blue, raw silk A-line dress with matching jacket for spring weddings (nicknamed the Betty Draper dress); the Seventies wool Marimekko windowpane-checked jumpsuit at New Year's Eve. 

I have never considered myself much of a consumer. In high school, fashion was a political act. Shopping at charity shops, wearing torn-up band t-shirts and vintage dresses, in our admittedly adolescent logic, was our way to reject materialism. Later, as a single parent living in the two most expensive cities in the country (San Francisco and New York), I created an art out of finding the perfect Sixties dress, the jeans worn through exactly right. Everything I bought was already decades past the fashion calendar, so I kept it all, and measured the years by the outfits that returned each season.


My new friend, Christina, a musician, moved from New York a decade before me, leaving behind an apartment full of custom-made Moroccan furniture. 'You can't eat beautiful things, make love to them, or take them to the grave,' she said. 'Enjoy them while you have them, and hope that life will be prosperous enough that more lovely items will come your way.'

But my new life felt borrowed, paid for by my new boyfriend's talent and the temporary generosity of a wealthy foundation. I'd had a life, and I'd blown it up. I didn't trust myself not to do it again. 

The fellowship ended. My boyfriend went back to pack up the Iowa apartment. I had a 10-day gig to cat-sit down the street from David Bowie's Seventies-era apartment, then no plans and no place to go. I renewed my residence permit, packed a carry-on bag with plain black t-shirts, and boarded the S-Bahn into my first Berlin summer. 


I stayed in 10 places: sublets, futons in student housing, kids' rooms. I knew that in Brooklyn, the peonies would bloom, then the lilac; then in August, the hops we planted to brew beer, named after our cat, Hopper, now dead. On another strange sofa bed, a visitor in other people's lives, I wondered if the new people in my old home kept the hand-painted mural narrating the adventures of our younger selves; what they would do with the things we'd left behind. 

When August came, I had two black eyes, jagged cuts and, as I would discover after 12 hours in the German A&E, a broken nose. Coming home alone, I caught my shoe in the pedals of a bike, and smashed my face open on the charming 19th-century cobblestones. With my wheelie bag and my battered face, I looked like I was fleeing a genuine disaster. Elderly women offered me seats on the S-Bahn.

In Christina's room, my face covered in bloody bandages, I saw an apartment listed: down the street from the film bar with free popcorn, a few streets from my German language class. Did I really know the city well enough to have a favourite street in Berlin? 

'I can't go to view an appointment looking like this,' I said. 

'Go right now,' Christina said. 

I moved in and kept my new apartment key around my neck, letting it rest against my chest. I was tired of being broken. I painted my protective nose cone hot pink with tiny black pirate skulls and bought skirts and lipstick to match; learned new phrases in German: 'fahrradunfall' ('bicycle accident'); 'meine nase ist gebrochen' ('my nose is broken').

A week later, a cardboard box arrived: my clothes, shipped from Iowa, my boyfriend soon to follow. I pulled on a vintage Hawaiian dress and remembered dancing barefoot on my patio in Brooklyn. I strutted in my heart-shaped, candy-pink heels. But Berlin is a black jeans and boots kind of town. For one thing, there are cobblestones.

My Berlin self, apparently, is darker. My nose healed, but I have a scar down the middle of my forehead, just under my fringe.  I've tried to weigh both my old and new life equally. And I want to avoid being too easy in summing up how I've evolved here. But I've come to accept that the old life is gone, the new one is the one I have, and the person I am now is the only one I get to be. I do not know which version of me is or was better, or kinder or even wiser. I do not know if I will ever know. I am not that girl any more. All I know is on that day, in my new apartment, I put on my old t-shirt and my new face, slipped the key around my neck, and walked out into my new city. Summer was over, and in Berlin, the air was colder, but the sun was still bright. 

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