I sold my house, got rid of most of my possessions... and started to get much more out of my life
Once Joy Lo Dico dreamed of a big house full of stuff. Then she started getting rid of things — and couldn’t stop
When friends drop by my flat, they ask, “Is this it?”. My answer is, “Yes, it is all I need.” Ten years ago, I owned a three-bedroom house in Shepherd’s Bush. I sold it and rented a good-sized flat in central London.
Then I gave that up and moved and moved again, each time to a slightly smaller, neater version until I ended up in the place in which I’m typing this now, with big windows on to the street and not much more in it.
Each time I up sticks, I shed a few more possessions until I am down to a core of furniture, an electric piano for guests to play, a few prints that I love, three shelves of books, an almost empty kitchen and a workhorse of a laptop. I leave the house with just a wallet, phone and keys and walk.
My London life has become simplicity itself.
We are told a story about how our lives should unfold: as you grow up, so too should your life expand.
You acquire more things — some that you need, many that you don’t — you should aspire to owning a house, and then a bigger one in which to put your growing pile of possessions and perhaps family as well, one to match your status and ego. And you get stronger locks on your doors to protect it all. It was a narrative I believed until about nine years ago, when a quiet rebellion began within me.
I was reminded of it when the Swedish music streaming company Spotify floated on the New York Stock Exchange earlier this month for $25bn.
My marriage had long since ended; the house was a hangover from it. I had everything one could want and yet felt empty. Spotify filled the silence through the speakers of my laptop.
I began wandering down the roads of music collections I could never own, tracing songs through cover versions and rooting around in history without obligation. No more paying for iTunes.
But it did something else: it changed my physical world. The drawers in my living room, which had been stuffed full of cassettes and CDs, became irrelevant and went unopened.
And soon, so did other drawers.
The paper copies of bank documents I’d filed and kept meticulously were now online. My child spent more time on an iPad, on the BBC’s recently launched iPlayer, than watching the stack of videos around the TV. We had become digital. Streaming had streamlined our lives.
And once one room became minimal, the other rooms in my three-bedroom house where I lived with my child and my husband, replaced later by a lodger, began to seem overweight. Cupboards seemed repositories of the shame of not having thought about what I acquired over the years.
The cellar was a hell of unused things. Tyler Durden said in Fight Club, after an explosion in the narrator’s apartment: “It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything.”
I wasn’t going to go that far, but it slowly dawned on me that ownership was a mental trap and I was going to liberate myself.
Shortly afterwards I decided to put the house up for sale. I lined the street outside with pots and pans and books and furniture for the neighbours to take, which they did, hungrily. I ditched the car. With every act of discarding, I just became a little lighter in my soul.
The house over the following weeks returned to the state in which I’d loved it most: the day I’d moved in when there was nothing there.
Friends who hungered for my middle-class existence were astonished. They fell out of my phone book. There’s not much space for entertaining in my new flat.
How and why did we become so acquisitive? Of the few books that have travelled with me are those of Bruce Chatwin, the Sotheby’s art expert who, struck by temporary blindness, was told by his doctor that the cure was possibly less examination of small objects and more distant horizons.
Chatwin set off on his travels through Asia, Australia and South America, writing all the way. In one series of jottings he meditates on what happens when we civilise: our nomadic forebears had only what they could carry about their person, on their pack animals and in their minds.
When nomads stopped walking and began to build villages, towns and cities, they acquired possessions as a substitute for the experiences granted by movement that had previously filled the mind.
Christian Jarrett, a journalist specialising in psychology, has observed that how we think about possession is cultural and most keenly felt in the acquisitive capitalist European and American societies. Other societies, or sections of them for whom individualism is not so firmly entrenched and where a collective mentality prevails, don’t yearn.
Is it possible that is spreading? The millennial generation needs and wants homes, but they all instinctively and obsessively like the opposite: an Instagram life that places high status on travel, on food, on experience, things that do not gather dust on shelves. Instead they are committed to the mind, and shared on social media.
Here are the digital nomads who are hyper-individualistic in their identities but not in their possessions, other than their iPhones. It is one of the ironies of the modern age that the capitalist society of California has begun to create a society in which objects lose their value.
Once that happens, do we begin to reassess the real world. The wardrobe, which has so many clothes in it; the throwaway culture, although most of us throw little away? The popularity of books such as Marie Kondo’s Spark Joy, a manual for cleaning out your life, suggests whatever buzz we got acquiring something does not last and that we want less.
And then the question of an owned house or flat, perhaps the most desired possession. It wasn’t always like this. One hundred years ago, only 23% of people in the UK were owner-occupiers. Well over half do now. Renting is seen as the failure option, but those who own a house can tell you the downsides: when the roof needs a £20,000 overhaul or the electricals go, or your family suddenly expands or contracts.
If we stream music for a fixed fee a month, rent is the real world equivalent. Someone else deals with the economics of yield and the ups and downs of fixing it, and we move in and out of it based on our needs at the time. Where does this leave you, when you have no particular fortress, when you are less secure, when you own little and just dip into streams of things as you require them? Does it, as Tyler Durden suggests, set you free?
I’m not a millennial. I knew a world in which we had CDs. Although the younger generation craves what the older generation has, it may be that we have fooled ourselves.
The baby boomers above me were the generation of growing wealth. They were also the ones for whom the great ad agencies of Mad Men fame learnt how to stimulate the desire to fill up their lives, told them to throw out old furniture and enthralled them to the latest new gadget or design, while estate agents sold the houses to put them in. New-build room sizes peaked in the 1970s.
But a house is not a home, and a home increasingly is a place in which we inhabit other digital borrowed worlds, libraries of everything, through our devices.
The need for territory has begun to dissolve in city living. I’m not going to advocate the Durden philosophy, not least because setting off explosions won’t please the neighbours. But I would advocate thinking again about every time someone sells you the idea of space, and the possessions to fill it.
There is an alternative to the security of closely held possessions and the fortress of a house: it is the security to know you saddle up the mules and change according to your situation.
Joy’s guide to small living
1. Work out what you need, not what you want. It’s often less than you think.
2. Crush garlic with a knife you own. Squeeze an orange with a fork.
3. Don’t buy more shelving. They are just places to accumulate things.
4. Think teaspoon rule: the more you have, the more you lose. But when you just have a few you look after them.
5. Memories of special people are held in the mind. Often just one object is the trigger, not a collection.
6. You don’t need to plan and buy for every eventuality, because you would not be able to move for things.
7. Libraries have loads of books. And books exist in digital form. Keep the special ones, share the rest.
8. The best outings end with you empty-handed but full of ideas.