(More) thoughts on clutter and “stuff”

Every time I go through my stuff I find more to get rid of. I wonder how that can (still) be. I am far from a hoarder and I’ve worked diligently to create a home that is organized, user-friendly, and attractive. I have shed so much. I give away A LOT of things so I am uncertain at times how there can still be more to purge! I look around and say “What is all this sh*t??” WHAT IS IT??

In the last several weeks I’ve given away several bagfuls of belongings and moved many others by the road with a “FREE” sign. It feels good. It always feels good. I am in no danger, however, of sitting around in four bare walls holding just a bowl and a spoon.

I do believe we as humans tend to take over whatever space is available to us. It’s only when we move to smaller quarters do a lot of people, willingly or otherwise, get rid of lot of junk. I don’t want to wait for that. I want to stay on top of it.

One thing I am trying to do – and it’s utterly new to me – is become comfortable with empty spaces. A shelf with nothing on it. A bin with nothing to put in it. Empty hangers. Unconsciously I believed for a very long time that wasn’t right – all spaces should be filled. Like it was a rule.

Having addressed the initial discomfort, I find that seeing empty space is luxurious. It makes my mind feel open too. It’s just freeing. As I’ve seriously de-cluttered and organized over roughly the last 8 or so years, it never occurred to me there might one day be empty spaces, or that they would somehow challenge me.

The more I get rid of the more I want to get rid of. I look around and say, “What else?” “What else can go?”

I find that some of what I’ve hung onto suited a younger me and that I must reconsider it in light of middle-aged me. Does it still suit me? Is it age-appropriate? Is it representative of who I want to be? Is there a place for it in my future?

So why does all this matter? Well, I’ve known lots of people who either lived surrounded by stuff and junk or even lived in squalor (it’s hard to keep a place clean when there is stuff everywhere and no bare floors) and they weren’t happy. I understand we can have a powerful relationship to our possessions – I do too – but I also see when there’s a point the stuff OWNS YOU. People keep (too much) stuff around because it makes them feel secure, or so they think but in reality the stuff is helping to keep them insecure. That’s what I think anyway.

Here are two rules of thumb of mine that I’ve been using when approaching my stuff:

1) If I saw it in a store today would I buy it?
2) If I was moving tomorrow would I take it with me?

(I’ve got a 3rd somewhat macabre one you cannot disregard if it seems too dark, “If I was dead would someone else want this?”)

These questions  force my hand. They show me how much the item really does or does not mean to me. It has raised my standards too and that’s a good thing. What I’m willing to keep around is tied to how I think about myself. What I deserve. What I’m worth. How I want to live.

At times I believe our stuff gets shabby when we’re looking the other way. I mean a pair of socks, for instance, doesn’t get pilled or lose its elastic overnight. It happens gradually and that makes us less likely to notice. I need to look with fresh eyes and decide whether something is serving me, adding to my life. Whether it’s socks or more substantial things.

I am still a consumer. Still a shopper. But I am taking in less than I am moving out. And the quality of what I buy and/or bring home has gone up. Now I consider far more carefully before I decide I want something. Sometimes when I acquire an item I give myself a set amount of time to use it (same thing with things I’m thinking about getting rid of). If I don’t use it in that time frame it goes. No more one day, maybe in five years or whatever, I might need this. If I give it some thought I can usually figure out why I’m not using something and further, a self-imposed deadline gives me an incentive to use it and form an opinion one way or the other.

It’s hard to find the right words to convey – and I know I’ve tried before in this blog – but for me possessions and the way I live are directly tied into who I am. I have a vision. I have a vision of who I want to be and how I want to live. It’s tricky to totally articulate it as a wholesale philosophy since much of it is based in feeling. But I know this. I want things to be beautiful, pleasing to the eye and to the senses. I want to feel a sense of calm and comfort. I want to be at ease. I want to look around with pleasure. I want to feel secure and in control. I want to feel cared for. My “stuff” is part and parcel of that.

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30 thoughts on “(More) thoughts on clutter and “stuff”

  1. vanbytheriver

    I like your macabre rule of thumb. It works better than you might think. My mind always goes to the George Carlin bit about “stuff”. Maybe because we didn’t have much growing up, I’ve never craved much in the way of material goods. I still don’t. Nearly everything of value in the house belongs to the husband. I’m good with that.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      See I think I have a touch of the opposite response to the same childhood (not having much). Now I want things, like owning more than 2 or 3 pairs of shoes. It was a Big Deal for me to realize it’s okay to give to myself in moderation. I don’t have valuable stuff either!

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      1. vanbytheriver

        I also liked your thoughts on empty space. I have this large walk in closet that is full of clothes I no longer wear. I think the reason I keep some of them is to avoid the empty closet. (They say that we wear 10 % of our clothes for 90% of the time ! )

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        1. writerinsoul Post author

          I always wonder if that percentage thing is really true! I have done the turn-all-the-hangers-backward-and-put-them-back-normally-after-you-wear-them thing. An empty closet sounds threatening/scary to me. It means either you have nothing you like and/or you aren’t who you used to be.

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  2. Retirementallychallenged.com

    I also wonder how I am able to get rid of more and more even though I’m not taking much new in. I think I’m just not ready or in the right frame of mind at certain points, then – maybe even a week or month later – I am. Most of my stuff goes to the Discovery Shop which supports cancer research, so I’m happy to give and they are happy to receive.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      I know what you mean; a day comes when you ask, “Why am I keeping this?” It helps too when you know it’s going somewhere it’s needed or wanted. I am fortunate to have several ways to pass things on. In my community a charity truck comes twice a month to a central spot to take donations. I also use freecycle for some items. When I just want it gone now a free sign by the road does the trick!

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  3. Kate Crimmins

    I agree with all of this including how possessions make you feel. There is always that one question that I shouldn’t ask. That’s “is there a snowball’s chance in hell that I’ll ever use this again.” Sometimes it passes that but only for unique things. When I retired I got rid of 90% of my business wardrobe including my heels (I have one pair of dress shoes now). It’s been 5 years. I have about 15 blazers/suit jackets from those days that are gorgeous and well made. They would look lovely over jeans or dress pants. Yet I never wear them. I grab a hoodie for jeans and something else for anything dressy but I haven’t had the heart to donate them yet. Perhaps I need meetings.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      VanbytheRiver has the same trouble! It’s hard to let go especially when something has identified us. And worse when they are of good quality and money was spent. Maybe sell your suits?

      I like your question, there is no escaping or waffling on its pointedness. I’ve got another one: “If I let this go can it be replaced if I ever need something like it again?”

      Yesterday I concluded I never want to wear uncomfortable shoes again (if any actual walking is involved). I am letting go of the last two pairs of stacked pumps that I’ve kept just-in-case (funerals, weddings). Now I must find attractive flats…

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      1. Kate Crimmins

        I (painfully) let go of my heels. I still have a few wedge heels that can do double duty — casual or dressy but no point in having skinny heels as I can’t wear them. I let go of any “nice looking” but snug pants easily. It’s weird what you can let go and what you can’t.

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        1. writerinsoul Post author

          Yes, it’s very personalized I think. There comes a day when it hits “I can – or will – never wear X again.” I could never tolerate spikey heels. Pumps and stacked heels were the best I could do. There are a few items of clothes I’ve kept because I think I can still pull them off but need the occasion.

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  4. Maggie Wilson

    1) If I saw it in a store today would I buy it?
    2) If I was moving tomorrow would I take it with me?

    Good rules!

    I tried this exercise once: every morning, while the coffee was brewing, I’d roam the house in search of something to throw away – it might be expired vitamins in the medicine cabinet, or the stack of soy sauce from the Chinese Food take out, or maybe one of the knick-knacks that has lost all meaning as a memento and now simply catches dust.

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  5. edgar62

    Good rules, which I like. I really need to do something similar, although I don’t have things in the house that catch dust, my things are in boxes out in two sheds. It’s time I disposed of a lot of it.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Thanks! Wow, 300,000. I just read a book challenging people to have just 100 possessions. Big, shared items like furniture weren’t included or dishes, in the author’s reckoning. And like items such as 8 t-shirts counted as one thing. I haven’t counted what I own but I’m thinking about it. I got rolling years ago with Peter Walsh’s books and another author who wrote “Throw Out 50 Things.” I was never bad about clutter, but once I started getting rid of stuff I got hooked.

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      1. nexi

        You’ve come across Zen Habits and The Minimalists? One thing I learned in passing is that hoarding and the far end of minimalism are at opposite ends of the same spectrum – probably better to strike a balance. We used to have a monthly clear out of rooms/garage etc when family lived at home, which kept clutter at bay – but find stuff silts up once the birds have flown!

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        1. writerinsoul Post author

          No, the 100 items book wasn’t Zen-based; I haven’t seen the book you mention. I’m neither a hoarder or a minimalist but want a streamlined, visually stimulating, functional home. (I’ve got lots of photos in my “Home” category.) Your regular cleanup days were smart. A smart, older woman I know said you spend the first half of your life accumulating stuff and the second half getting rid of it!

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          1. nexi

            Love the comment on the second half of life. https://zenhabits.net/ is a popular website for those who want to streamline their lives in a number of areas – the author is one who has tried reducing his belongings to a minimum. I’m with you on functionality – facing a serious downsize this year is really making me think. After a couple of decades I can’t even remember where I bought stuff that seemed to have eternal value at the time!!

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            1. writerinsoul Post author

              I get it! I am always asking myself about some random object, “Do I care about this??” A downsize like yours really forces your hand. I will check out the site, thanks. –Colette

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  6. Miriam

    I’ve been decluttering and focusing on living more simply for a long time now, and I feel very similarly to you. I have some hoarders in my extended family, and I just feel better when I live more lightly. It’s a process though… at this point I feel like I’m mostly done with getting rid of stuff and it’s just a matter of only buying something when I really want it. Moving a lot helps!
    My situation is complicated by the fact that I have to live with other people- if I lived alone I would have very little, but my husband likes “stuff” a lot more than I do so it’s all about compromise.
    Great post- I like your perspective 🙂

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Thanks Miriam! Always good to hear from you. I think I would get totally squirrelly if I lived with someone who held onto stuff. I know at this point in my life I couldn’t. I didn’t raise a family and I know multiple people require much more too. I understand the moving motivator! I moved many times within the same general area when I was younger. THAT is when you really see how you live. However I’ve been in one place a long time now & it’s clear how easy it is to accumulate. I think I unconsciously followed many of my parents’ habits and style for a long time and had to seriously examine those mindsets. The habit of decluttering & streamlining is ongoing. I have to fight the “maybe this could be useful sometime” belief and the fear of not having things.

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  7. lyrehs49

    I am not a hoarder either but my house looks like I am because I’m so disorganized and there is clutter everywhere. It doesn’t help that our house is woefully lacking in storage space. That being said we still have a ton of stuff that we don’t need and I crave minimalism….the clutter overwhelms and depresses me. Unfortunately my husband doesn’t feel the same way!

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      I totally get it. I don’t have storage either & many years back took on a philosophy of “not more storage, less stuff.” The more I get rid of the more I want to get rid of. I don’t live fancy but I’m living the nicest I ever have and it adds so much to my life. Would there be any way to appeal to your husband, like making it a game or challenge? Home should be the one blissful place we can control I think.

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