Conscious Uncoupling (With our Stuff)


(The end result of uncoupling from our stuff.)

Five years ago we undertook our first major uncoupling with stuff. We sold our 3,000 square foot house and parted ways with about half of our belongings. We moved into an urban duplex that was just under 1,500 square feet. Having less space to clean, less stuff to manage, and no yard to maintain felt like huge weights off our back. And yet to make this RV adventure possible, we had to redefine our relationship with stuff again. Last time, we dropped 50% in size, this time we dropped 90%.

While moving into a 160 square foot space is definitely radical, let us be clear that we are not (yet) radical minimalists. We are maintaining a 10 x 10 storage unit that will be full of items that we’re not yet ready to part with (like a fancy dress I still hope to get to wear someday), that would be stupid to part with (our gorgeous dishes and flatware), or that are irreplaceable (looking at you high school yearbooks!). 


(All of our stored possessions… and still room to spare.)

But we undertook the enormous task to look at every item in every drawer and cupboard and decide whether it comes with us, goes into storage, or finds a new home. And even with the smaller duplex, there were still so many drawers and cabinets, full of things to consider.


(What was hiding in our linen closet and in the cupboards under the sinks.)

Uncoupling from our stuff would have been a lot easier if I’d been willing to pull out a large box and dump most things in it and cart it off to the dumpster, or even to Goodwill. This is where the “conscious” part of conscious uncoupling comes in — it takes a tremendous amount of presence, intention, focus, and cognitive labor to let things go in a sustainable way.

But in keeping with my efforts to reduce our household waste, and since I know that a large percent of donated items to thrift store organizations (like Goodwill) actually end up in the landfill (or worse, things like clothes being sent to African countries putting local textile makers out of business), I wanted to find other solutions.


(The art cabinet required significant uncoupling!)

The kids had accumulated many boxes of things we can’t take with us, and that they didn’t want to come back to: art supplies, games, books, toys, stuffies, dolls, and more. I found a local family shelter that welcomes donations for most of these things and we delivered a car load of kids supplies as well as jackets, hats and scarves for adults. Plush stuffies are a much harder thing to find a home for. After extensive research, I discovered the police department of a nearby city collects clean plush dolls and does a “fill a patrol car” program every holiday season to give away these toys to kids in need in their city. They were grateful for the three huge bags of plush toys we dropped off.


(The “before” picture of the garage storage.)

And then there’s Craigslist. Managing Craigslist postings is nearly a full time job. The first step of getting items posted (taking photos, measurements, details, links, pricing) seems like it would be the hardest part. But I find it harder to deal with the incoming inquiries and sales. So many people express interest and disappear. Or exchange 3 or 4 emails and then stop responding. I’ve gotten good about telling from someone’s first email about the likelihood of whether the sale will go through, and thus how much time and energy to put into it. I’ve also decided to be radically trusting of people. Often, someone wants to stop by to buy something when we’re not going to be home. Rather than haggling to find a mutually agreeable time, I’ve been leaving the item on the front porch, and asking them to leave the money under the mat. Amazingly, I’m batting 100% on this strategy. Trust people and they are trustworthy.

I’ve had a lot of fun with the distribution method we call the “free box” — which means leaving stuff in a box out at the corner. I’m not sure if this phenomenon is unique to urban Portland, but it is certainly popular in this city. People will take almost anything left in a free box. Sometimes the weirder the better. I love the thought of someone walking by and finding something that delights them and that is FREE!


(The product of our in-house graphic artists.)

We held a garage sale which helped moved some things into new homes, but not nearly as much as I’d hoped it would. I priced things high hoping people would bargain, but very few people asked for reduced prices. Maybe Portlanders aren’t comfortable with haggling? Maybe I should have put more bargain prices on things to begin with?

The method that brought me the most pleasure was giving stuff away (or selling it super cheaply) to friends. Knowing that someone who has blessed my life is receiving benefit from my stuff makes me happy. We have one friend who bought a whole truckload of furniture. Other friends have come to take a piece or two off our hands. I overheard two friends talking about wanting to make kombucha and was thrilled that I had two sets of kombucha-making kits, and was able to give each of them one.

Pairing down clothes without simply donating them to Goodwill may be the hardest. I’ve taken some to clothing swaps with friends. I’ve tried consigning with mixed success. I’ve gifted some pieces to similarly sized friends. But unless you buy expensive clothes, and take good care of them and sell them while they’re still trending, the resale market is tough. Mostly, they ended up going to Goodwill.


(The garage became the clearing center for all the miscellaneous pieces still looking for homes.)

I’ve learned some interesting lessons through this process:

– Everyone has different relationships to stuff, and different experiences with letting stuff go. For me, I’m not attached to things, and I feel little remorse when things walk out the door. Actually, I feel elated when things walk out the door, because it’s one more thing off my to do list. And even as much as I love the process, it was also extremely taxing and difficult, and I don’t think a day passed during the last week that I didn’t shed tears over how overwhelmed I felt by the quantity of stuff and work to do. Mark processed it differently. Things for him contain memory, and potential, and emotion. Letting things go also means letting go of all those things contained therein, and that can feel really sad for him. For the girls, they’ve had a lot of sadness around their dolls and stuffies. They describe many of them as “friends” or their “children” and they’ve had a hard time saying goodbye to many of them. The most precious ones we’ve kept and boxed up, and even saying “so long for now” was difficult for them.


(The last load in an otherwise empty garage.)

– This has already changed how the girls spend their allowance money. We’ve never put restrictions on what they buy as we feel like there are important lessons to be learned with that autonomy. But since committing to the RV, their spending has dropped significantly, their savings are way up, and they can walk into a store and look around and leave without even seeming like they wanted to buy anything. This is allowing us to have conversations about the downsides of plastic toys (“What do you mean no one wants this used? It can’t be recycled??”). And it’s helped them see how much they had and to be able to talk about the kids who have so little. They felt better giving away so much stuff knowing that it would go to kids who were in difficult life circumstances and situations. My hope is that it makes a long term shift in their relationship to consumption and allows them to have a bigger perspective ecologically and socially. 

– Even before deciding to make this giant leap into tiny space, we were not big shoppers. And yet I’m seeing how much more intention and consideration we could have placed on the things we bought. Now as we’re figuring out few remaining things we need that are specific to the RV, we’ll be thinking a lot more about qualities like:  durability, recyclability/ resale-ability, size & weight, multifunction, and whether something is just right or only good enough. We’re making what we already had work for our new needs in the RV.


(As glad as we were to say goodbye to stuff, it was hard to say goodbye to this sweet home that sheltered us so perfectly for so many years!)

I often joked that I should update my resume to reflect one of my primary jobs: “Stuff Management.” So much of my time before was spent shopping for, cleaning up, putting away, fixing, organizing, and moving stuff. While we’re on the tail end of stuff management overload, I’m hopeful that after this is all done, and we have significantly less stuff to manage, so more of my time and energy can be spent in more meaningful ways. And I hope that whenever we do return to a less nomadic way of living, that the lessons of this uncoupling process will stay with us, and we’ll make different decisions about what we buy, how we fill our house, and how we spend our time and money. 

What about school?

The second most commonly asked question we get is “what about school?” This question comes in two flavors:

  • What is our general educational philosophy?
  • How exactly are we going to do it?

To answer the first question about philosophy, we see that our approach falls into three core tenants:

  • Intention
  • Play
  • Wisdom

The poet Mary Oliver asks the question we want at the heart of all our educational endeavors (both for the adults and the kids):

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
– Mary Oliver

And by “plan to do” we don’t think Mary Oliver is talking about the plan of “what you want to be when you grow up.” To us she is talking about intention and choice… inviting us to be active participants in our one-time, magical, precious journey on this planet. Even this blog post has become documentation of our intentions for this educational journey.

In the book “Essentialism” author Greg Mckeown reminds us that school didn’t start out being serious, full of hard work, or about competition and pressure. He says:

“The word school is derived from the Greek word schole, meaning “leisure.””
– Greg Mckeown

We have learned a lot about the concept of “playful inquiry” from Opal School (our elementary school) and we see the importance of continuing to learn, explore, and understand the world with a sense of joy, flow, and ease that comes when you play.

The older the kids get, the more pressure there is to make sure we fill their heads with information that they “should” know. And while we want them to know a lot of things, we also wish for them to have a deeper wisdom about what is important in life and how to create a life well lived. This quote from Lao-tzu reminded us that our ongoing efforts of deliberate subtraction are important for more than just our “stuff”… we need to apply this to our educational approach as well:

To attain knowledge, add things every day.
To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.
– Lao-tzu

As we subtract, we hope what remains is lots of room to be present to life, to be aware of and share our emotions, to hone our creativity and imaginations, to practice our adaptability and courage, to respond to injustice or calls for assistance, to process and problem solve, and to see where we can use our privilege to improve life for all beings. These seem like the best educational experiences we can provide to support the next generation, and the best ways we can be in service to the emerging future.

So this leads us to the second flavor of this question: “How are we going to do it?”

How? We’re going to have a lot of fun!

We’re going to visit museums, observatories, nature centers, and national parks. We’re going to read great books as a family. We’re going to ask people we meet about what they find most interesting about a place, or their job, or something they’re learning, or something they care about. We’re going to play cards, and track our expenses, and play math games online. We’re going to visit the places we read about. We’re going to volunteer. We’re going to cook, clean, do laundry, fill up our water tanks, empty our waste, check the tires, set up and take down, navigate, research our next stop, and find cool things to do. We’re going to practice typing, using spreadsheets, create presentations, and document our progress. We’re going to see shows and plays, art fairs, and festivals. We’re going to send postcards, and compose blog posts and magazine articles, and write long fantasy fiction stories. We’re going to hike, swim, paddle, bike, explore caves, and walk along the beach. We are going to keep our hearts open for what calls to us to serve.

And all the while, we’ll be turning life learning into “education-ese,” tracking it in Evernote, and categorizing it according to Washington State’s homeschooling subjects: reading, writing, spelling, language, math, science, social studies, history, health, occupational education, and art and music appreciation. To meet the homeschooling laws, we have to keep these records and get the kids either tested or evaluated each year (and keep those results).

Will they know how to study and take tests? Will they know how to buckle down and do three hours of homework every night? Will they be prepared for competition, performance expectations, testing rigor, ringing bells, peer pressure, or other aspects of traditional schooling life?

No, probably not. But hopefully they will have a deep wisdom that comes from a solid relationship with their own internal drive, their passions, their motivations, their interests, their yes and their no, their autonomy, their creativity, and their pleasure and they can apply these things to navigate their path in the future. And maybe they’ll use those skills to find a way to create a life that doesn’t have so much stress, and pressure, and unpleasantness for themselves and for others…

Going For It

The idea of being nomadic, pulling our kids out of school, traveling around the globe, not working 9-5 jobs… was something we’d dreamed into for years. But there was always something in the way… a career goal, or an amazing school, or being with family, or the kids were too young, or the financial resources weren’t there, or, or….

We told ourselves that middle school would be the time to go — the kids would be independent, but would still want to be with us. They would be able to remember the trip, and we could spare them the bully- and busywork laden experience of (many) middle schools. [Or were we fooling ourselves with the idea that spending extended periods of time with two pre-pubescent teens was a good idea!?]

And all of a sudden, the middle school years were upon us. And a huge goal Mark had been working towards in his career was achieved (and exceeded!). And we said goodbye to our furry first child at the ripe age of 13 (RIP Kihei!). And all the small decisions we’d made over the years, to downsize, simplify, and tread lightly on the earth, meant we were in a position to make a radical change.

Over the winter, as we sat writing notes in our holiday card to our many friends scattered across the country, we got a clear sense that we wanted to travel and re-establish these connections. To see long lost friends, and soon to be friends, and business friends, and to meet new friends along the way. To deepen our relationships with the sunset, and the moon cycle, and the stars in the sky. To create new relationships with the natural beauty of this country, particularly the national parks, and the lakes, and the wildlife. To deepen our relationship as a family unit.

And so it was decided, we would start domestically — traverse this beautiful country (and our neighbor to the north) and we would embrace the essentialism required by “van life” by doing so in a small RV. Extensive research, touring a friend’s rig, and visiting the RV show led us to Leisure Travel Vans.

Because we are pragmatic virgos who are overly responsible and plan everything out in advance, we decided to rent a Leisure Travel Van before going ahead and buying one. Our inaugural trip happened over spring break in March, where we spent 5 days in the van, visiting Yosemite, the Giant Sequoias, gold rush towns, caverns, and more. On the last evening in the van, we told the kids that we had to turn it in the next day, and we took their response as a good sign: “What?! Already?!”

We returned from the trip excited to move forward and to purchase our very own Serenity model Leisure Travel Van. We placed an order for a new unit with all the upgraded bells and whistles on the Sprinter chassis (yeah for apple car play and adaptive cruise control).

(Here’s the outside view — just under 25 feet long)

(The interior layout — the back bed also makes into an L shaped couch, and the mid-seating turns into a second full size bed.)

Our van should be built and delivered before the end of the summer, which is perfect timing. We love spending the summer in the Northwest, not to mention we have a lot of unwinding work to do.

The question we’re most often asked once people hear of our news, is “where are you going to go?” And interestingly, we have made no decisions yet. There are lots of places we want to go, and lots of people we want to see, but we’re waiting to see where the wind takes us. Maybe we’ll start north in BC and Vancouver Island? Or we’ll zoom out to the east coast and enjoy time there before winter sets in? Or maybe we’ll head south and spend the winter in Florida or Arizona or New Mexico? I actually love that we don’t know, and that it’s not all mapped out. That feels so un-virgo and like the start of a new chapter of life for us.

The fourth most often asked question is “will you keep a blog?” Hopefully this post answers that question. We’ll keep a blog mostly for ourself and if anyone else enjoys reading it too, that’ll be great. And in future posts, I’ll address the second and third most asked questions!

For now, I’m enjoying walks in the arboretum several times a week with Mark as we relish in the gorgeous spring weather, and we talk through the myriad of decisions, nuances, and details that are going into this transition.