Probably like (too) many things, we first learn about “stuff” [tilts head toward the late George Carlin] from our parents. My parents hung onto their stuff. There were two generations between us – they could have been my grandparents age-wise and had lived through the U.S. Great Depression – and I have to think that affected how they approached their belongings. They weren’t of the same exact mindset and that was but one of the things which caused friction between them. (Note to self: Only cohabitate with people who share your attitudes about stuff.)
I grew up believing that a person could have one nice thing of a type for “special” (that was almost never allowed to be used be it shoes, a piece of jewelry, a dish, a dress), and the rest had to be kinda crappy or run-of-the-mill. I learned to hang onto things, because you just never know. And: don’t be wasteful. Contrary to increasingly popular attitudes about scaling back and getting rid of things you don’t need, when I was coming up, the message (from what I heard and read in articles & books) was about how to keep things. But there’s only so many pencil holders made from tricked out tin cans a gal can use.
Over the course of my life, I’ve moved a lot. I don’t mean around the country, but the way a typical renter moves a lot. And I hauled all my sh*t with me. It just didn’t occur to me that I could let things go. I felt an obligation to keep every stuffed animal given to me by old boyfriends, friends or relatives (even though I didn’t really like having them, or so darn many of them past the age of 20 or so); every greeting card, everything I’d made, every knick-knack, almost every present received. It wasn’t as if I was toting around heirlooms, antiques, and things that would appreciate in value. (As I told a cousin who expressed regret over possibly having tossed out too many things, if they were gold bricks you would have saved them.) I’ve kept house plants that were ailing and/or I didn’t like. It’s a plant, a living thing: you can’t throw that out! I kept broken or substandard things: you might be able to fix it one day. Or it’s good enough (and here’s the uncomfortable, then-unconscious part: …for you.)
I never lived in squalor. I always cleaned. But I couldn’t always lay my hands on things I was looking for; my shelves were stacked with books and knick-knacks, my closets were full, my paper files plentiful. Every time I saw certain items – things from the past, broken stuff, things that were once nice, jewelry I no longer wore, things I’d hauled home with the thought of one day making something with them, magazines and books I hadn’t read (yet) – I felt twinges of guilt or unease. Those were familiar sensations, part of the diet I was fed from a very young age, and had been toting around for years. Applying them to my belongings was largely my own doing. (Feelings are always in need of outlets are they not?! We just look around for what’s at hand.)
As I started to look at myself differently – from reading, from thinking, from growing up – I started to look at the stuff differently too. Part of what motivated me was being involved in dismantling the households and possessions of a few people who had died. There is nothing like seeing what another person has held onto to shock you into action. Looks like THEY never found a use for 20 old glass jars. As I mentioned in one of my earliest posts, I saw a garage belonging to a woman I know that was almost empty. It housed a car and almost nothing else. I was so impressed! I watched public personalities like the quirky, common-sensical Peter Walsh, clutter master, and too cute designer Nate Berkus, on TV. I couldn’t relate to the shopping habits and hording I saw in many of the people profiled, but the basic principals I could. I read books from the library: Throw Out 50 Things, Peter Walsh’s books, and others.
What these people said made sense. It’s like they gave me the permission I’d been seeking. I remember one author mentioning that a shelf didn’t have to be filled. Maybe it’s terribly obvious, but that had never occurred to me before. I felt huge relief in letting things go. It became a game and a challenge (and I love both!). What else can I get rid of? I wanted to look around and only see things that pleased me. It wasn’t about money. It didn’t require a bunch of spending, so much as getting creative. Raising my standards. I stopped accepting substandard stuff from other people, both tangible and not. And not to get too metaphaphysical on you, but as I did this, better stuff came along when I needed it.
Don’t imagine I now live in a museum, stark and bare, the kitchen stocked with a simple bowl and a single spoon, the shelves stripped, no knick-knacks or houseplants in evidence. Not at all. I like having pictures on the wall, plants in every room, knick-knacks on shelves, and a couple time-saving devices in the kitchen. Doesn’t have to be pricey or high-end. Comfortable, organized, and attractive is the goal. I need a place that makes me feel cozy and safe and at ease. I need pretty. But I’m mindful and careful now. The whole kit and caboodle requires maintenance, needs me to be vigilant and keep my eyes on the prize.