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Ode: Ally Karsyn

Ally Karsyn

Less stuff, more life

Whenever I start to feel stuck, I change the one thing I can, and I begin redecorating with all the fervor of Martha Stewart on the day she discovered Pinterest. My arbitrary impulse serves as a welcome distraction.

But while I’m flitting from room to room, I’m faced with things that were purchased under the assumption that they’d be placed in a lovely downtown loft apartment, not a lonely suburban home that has a lawn to mow and bushes to trim and porches to paint.

I continue rampant redecorating, figuring, if I can’t change how I’m feeling inside, maybe I can change how the stuff around me makes me feel, maybe I can make the most of this situation like I have done so many times before. Every swipe of the credit card incites acute panic as I imagine how many boxes it’s going to take to pack up everything and move.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve bounced between different dorms and apartments and boomeranged in and out of living in my parents’ basement for a total of 20 moves.

Part of me liked the impermanence, and I was ready to maintain my nomadic lifestyle.

I had underestimated the power of American consumerism and soon found myself in its grips. The problem of “more” is that it goes against my intention and stifles my free spirit. It makes me simultaneously anxious and at ease.

To my delight and dismay, I keep decorating.

My handmade shelves hang in the dining room. A DIY painting brightens the breakfast buffet. I discover the wonders of duvet covers and waste away Saturday afternoons in thrift stores and flea markets. With these little touches, the house I never wanted becomes livable, comfortable even. A blanket of security wraps around me, slowly suffocating me in its warm embrace.

When I studied abroad in London, I packed a few clothes, some toiletries, my laptop and a little point and shoot camera. I spent the summer living in a small hotel room with plain white walls and a single bed. There was a shared bathroom down the hall, and all 16 girls in the program had access to the commercial kitchen.

Opportunities outweighed inconveniences. Walking 10 minutes in either direction from the hotel brought you to the gates of Buckingham Palace or to the foot of Big Ben. On sunny afternoons, I would wander the city, just strolling along the River Thames and watching boats float by the London Eye, the fourth largest Ferris wheel in the world.

My most prized possession was a pair of black boots. As the heels hit the pavement, they made the most beautiful sound, and it sounded like freedom.

These boots could take me anywhere.

On one weekend, I went to Edinburgh with six other girls, and we dined on the most delightful pastries in the back room of The Elephant House, one of the cafés where J.K. Rowling penned a portion of Harry Potter. It was the land of welly boots, tartan kilts and this thick, wet fog that was no match for my umbrella. I stayed in my first and last hostel and went on my merry way.

On another weekend, my parents had landed in London, and from there, we took an overnight ferry to our motherland, but instead of returning to our true Dutch roots in the province of Friesland, we went to Amsterdam, home to legal pot brownies and prostitutes.

Of course, we saw the PG-13 version of the city. Canals, bicycles and Vincent Van Gogh. And strangely walked through the deserted Red Light District on a Sunday morning when, otherwise, my parents would have been sitting in a church pew.

Next, we were on a high-speed train to Paris, a city I had dreamed of seeing since I was 8 years old, and I found a way to make it happen by time I was 20. We ate crepes and saw the glittering Eiffel Tower at night and stood in the presence of Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile. But one of my favorite memories is having an automated public toilet yell at me in French and refuse to close the door. Turns out, it wanted to be paid.

I didn’t need much but the promise of adventure.

A year later, during my last semester of college, I shared a dingy, one-bedroom apartment with two other girls for $1,500 a month in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, just a couple blocks down the street from the original Playboy Mansion and minutes away from Michigan Avenue.

The apartment was less than 500-square-feet. I had seen closets bigger than our kitchen. A narrow doorway led into the tiny room with its dorm-sized fridge and 20-inch oven. I could almost stretch my arms from side to side and fill the width between the walls.

I was glad when my parents couldn’t come to visit like they did when I was in London. I knew they’d scoff at my cozy apartment and wonder how people live that way. I do the same thing to them.

Driving into the east side of my hometown, a welcome sign says, “Place of opportunities.” That sign mocks me.

Early on, it became clear that unless I could lift 50 pounds, developed cattle-herding skills or earned a truck driver’s license, I would not find work, let alone something that is fulfilling. My only other viable option seemed to be settling down as a farmer’s wife like so many of the women in my family had done before me.

I wanted more, and to get it, I was willing to give up a lot.

In my hometown, I was surrounded by relative comfort, found in the stuff and things of Midwestern mediocrity. It’s the kind of place where people are born and never leave. It’s like they never stop to consider that there could be another way of life beyond convention and all I did was consider it.

My desire to escape was often met with anecdotes of people who went off to the live in some big, scary city – like Sioux Falls – and came crawling back within a few years to the familiar hamlet in the valley.

When I went to Chicago, I wanted to get away from the simplicity of small-town life, but I had never lived so plainly or cheaply ever before. I chose Ramen noodles over the role of farmer’s wife. For that, I was happy, and no one could take that away.

So after living out of a suitcase on more than one occasion, I shunned the idea of accumulating things because they can weigh you down. They can hold you back.

My mantra became: collect memories, not things.

But now, less than five years later, here I was, feeling trapped and collecting things in an attempt to soothe my restlessness.

Appalled and ashamed, I began to purge, not the spring cleaning kind of purging, but the kind where you change your lifestyle and look into the depths of your soul and ask yourself how you want to live and if holding on to material comfort is really living at all.

More important than having things is maintaining a sense of mobility and knowing that I can pick up and leave at a moment’s notice, that I am free, that I own my stuff and it doesn't own me.    

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