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(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.

Short Thought 133 (things)

I’m at a point in my life where I think I get equal pleasure from acquiring things and getting rid of things. I wonder if the pendulum will keep swinging in favor of getting rid of stuff or whether I’ve reached a state of constancy. Admittedly, the delight of new ownership has not left me but then again, I’m jaded enough to know not many things live up to their original promise. It’s the odd things that do… I remain thrilled with a tuna strainer and a battery tester. Who would think?


I think a lot about stuff, things, and consumerism. Both how they play in my life and on a broader scale. It is easy in America, to fall into tunnel vision, where the focus is on gobs & gobs of possessions, forever trading up, keeping current, going bigger, and god forbid, not getting left behind. I live very simply; I don’t have money or things by the standards around me, yet even I am susceptible to the desires perpetually stroked by our consumer culture. I don’t know when exactly happiness and possessions became so inextricably linked here – likely further back in time than I’d guess, but linked they are.

At times I intentionally force myself out of the limited tunnel of vision, and think about how my life and possessions might appear to someone in the second or third world. It’s almost embarrassing to consider, especially when I’m feeling deprived in any fashion. I see an abundance. Food, clothes, entertainment. I see the positive effects of lifelong nutrition and dental care. I see plants, greenery and the upside of nature. I see education and access to books. And access is a great word here, because that may be the one thing, access of all stripes, that stands out in relief. This kind of reflection jogs my thoughts out of wanting mode and makes me see that what I have is enough for a happy life. That is, I’m reminded that if I am not happy, or more accurately, satisfied, it is not the fault of my possessions or what my life affords me, literally and figuratively.

Within the last couple years, I have put my hands on every last thing I own. There are no “mystery boxes,” no “what is this part for?” conundrums, no “I haven’t worn this shirt in 10 years but dagnabbit I’m keeping it anyway” stances. If I’m hanging onto anything extraneous or illogical, I know what it is and where it is. I’ve moved a lot of junk on down the road. It’s outta here. A woman I know told me that you spend the first half of your life collecting things and the second half getting rid of them. I’d never heard that before! It sure sounds like what smart people would do. I can’t exactly sign on for that plan though, because I never really had much in the first place, and what I mean by that are nice, quality things. I don’t have any family heirlooms, no good China, no investment pieces. What I’ve sent packing was detritus, even if it took awhile, in some instances a long while, to see that.

There are still things I want, still cravings and wishes. However, I can catch myself and decipher what’s motivating those urges. I think carefully before bringing anything into my life. There has to be room for it in every sense. I now buy smallish things that make my life easier or more enjoyable, that I did without in the past (whether I opted out, they didn’t yet exist, or I just didn’t know they existed), but even they are subject to standards. It’s a bit of a clichĂ© that when you get rid of old things, space is freed for better things. I gotta admit, clichĂ© or not, I’ve found it to be true. Habit, fear, and imagined senses of obligation (“I must hang onto this!”) drive much of what keeps a person stuck. And what I’m saying applies to objects yes, but it’s shown itself beyond that as well. I hadn’t figured on that. The thinking changes I’ve made are broad and philosophical in scope. You have to clear the decks of all the crap and clutter, create space and then consider what you want to fill in the spaces with, if anything. That’s where I’m at anyway.

My “stuff” isn’t getting the better of me any more

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.