I received such an overwhelming response to my article about simplifying our lives by getting rid of surplus possessions, that I decided to delve a little more deeply into the subject. It is one of my favorite topics because I’ve benefitted so much from learning and applying the principles I’ll mention here.
More than a decade ago, I walked into my kitchen and gasped! How could it be? I used to dream of the day when all the kids would be grown and housekeeping would be a breeze. What a surprise to learn that I could make such a world-class mess all by myself!
Consequently, I laughed when I saw the phrase “It takes just a little livin’ to make a house a heap.” Over the years, we’d no doubt accomplished the heap of livin’ that had made our house a home, and now we were finding out all over again that it takes just a little livin’ to make that home a heap!
I rolled up my sleeves and went to work on my messy kitchen, all the while chiding myself for not cleaning up as I went. But some ideas struck me as I worked. My kitchen wouldn’t be such a mess if I didn’t have so much “stuff!” I wouldn’t have so much clutter on the counter if I had more room to store things in the cupboards. And I would have more room to store things if I got rid of all the stuff I wasn’t using.
About this time, one of my grown “boomerang” sons was in process of moving out again, and I knew he could use some kitchen supplies. That gave me the motivation I needed: after I undid the damage I’d caused from the last meal and had some counter space to work with, I started sorting stuff out of each cupboard.
I wondered how to decide what to let go. Asking myself, “When was the last time you used that?” seemed like a good starting place. Soon, I had quite an assortment of unnecessary duplicates and things I wasn’t using at all. “Brian!” I called. “Come and take a look and see if you could use this stuff in your new place.” His response was affirmative. We got boxes and began packing; he soon moved the boxes along with his other belongings into his new abode. (I’ve never missed one of the things I gave him.)
What a Relief!
My cupboards looked great! I could actually see what I had and retrieve each item easily. I could fit everything in so the surplus was not overflowing onto the counters. As I began preparing meals in my newly simplified environment, I found it was more fun, and my messes were easier to clean up. Because I felt better about my kitchen, I was motivated to keep it looking nicer as I went along.
Principles I Could Use All Through the House!
I’ve found that these same basic ideas apply to all the messes in my home. Not long ago I found that I was stacking papers and books all over my office. Why? Because I had the bookshelves and credenza and file drawer so full of stuff I wasn’t using and didn’t need that there was no room for the stuff I was using and did need! Consequently, it didn’t take much livin’ to make my office a heap!
I needed to get rid of what I wasn’t using. I started with my floor-to-ceiling bookshelves: I pulled the books I would never read again, boxed them up and took them to a used book store that gives credit for other books I may want in the future. What a great deal. Then I had room for the books lying all over the room. What a difference that one effort made. Now I can usually find the books I need when I need them.
How to Sort
Many organization gurus suggest that the best way to start working ourselves out of clutter is to label three boxes: 1. to discard, 2. to give away, 3.to store. Dividing the contents of any drawer, cupboard, or closet into those three categories gives you a good place to start. Another consistent guideline is to clean out one small area at a time to avoid overwhelm (and to avoid having family members ask you if a bomb hit the house!)
Who Wants My Heaps?
There are many charities that appreciate donations of the surplus that only complicates our lives. For instance, in our area we have Big Brothers and Big Sisters, ARC, Deseret Industries, and many other thrift stores. Some of these organizations come right to your home and pick up donations. Many of them provide receipts so you can count your donation as a tax deduction. Because I’ve donated before, some of these organizations call me at regular intervals. When one of them announces a pending pickup date, I use that date as motivation to sort stuff out of cupboards and closets. You know the kind of stuff I mean-the stuff that tends to make my house a heap and that I would be better off without.
Another option for finding those who would benefit from your surplus is to check out online opportunities to turn your clutter into cash. You can sell anything from books to furniture to sports equipment online. For large items you can access sites that advertise near your home, making it possible for potential buyers to come to your home to pay you and pick up what you are selling. Several sites will widely advertise items that can be easily shipped, such as used books, DVDs, etc.
If you just want to get rid of your stuff, and don’t want the bother of selling it, contact The Freecycle Network. It is made up of 5,083 groups around the world. It’s a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (and getting) stuff for free in their own towns. It’s all about reuse and keeping good stuff out of landfills. Membership is free. To sign up, Google Freecycle, then find your community by entering it into the search box or by clicking on ‘Browse Groups’ above the search box.
What to Do about Emotional Ties with Our “Stuff”
Admittedly, it is rarely easy to discard the treasures of years of living. If you find it difficult, or even impossible, to let go of certain things, you aren’t alone-and most of us need help to move ahead. My sister is my biggest help. For some reason I can be so much more objective and honest with myself when she is there talking it through with me. If you don’t have a sister or a friend who can help, you might consider hiring a professional.
While our emotional issues vary, we all tend to have irrational ties to certain things for reasons we can’t explain. This is such a widespread problem that a few years ago our hometown newspaper had a “Clutter Contest and one of my writer friends won! It was a little uncomfortable for her to be dubbed the person who most needed professional help to de-clutter her home, but oh, did she love the help! She was totally ready to let go; the de-clutter team helped me fill and discard dozens of garbage bags and boxes, and she was one happy lady.
All of us clutter-bugs agree that the most common emotion we feel in the aftermath of de-junking is relief. Possessions have the power to own more of you than you own of them. Simplifying means taking our lives back!
Author David Dudley, who wrote an article on de-cluttering for AARP Magazine said, “The rarely used objects cluttering our lives are not really objects at all but symbols of our plans and untapped potential. They are, as my father said while I hauled off a grill, ‘artifacts of unused life’ (AARP, January & February 2007, p. 66). That philosophy may apply to Doug’s trumpet that he hasn’t played since Jr. High, the stack of books I intend to read “some day,” and the dozen files of article ideas I may never get to. But I think they can also be symbols of “used” life. Some of the things we keep are vital to recording and documenting the lives we have lived. Others may be indicators that we are clinging too tightly to the past, or afraid to face the pain of the past long enough to sort through them. Or we may be connecting our “things” with our memories to such a degree that we feel we would be throwing out the memory or even the experience if we throw out the thing. I know a woman who believes the “thing” is the memory; her life is complicated and weighed down by a house, garage, and storage units packed full of “memories.” I also know a man who identifies so completely with his “things” that he feels immensely disrespected, invaded, even violated if any possession is damaged, broken, or given away.
Professional organizer Jeanne Smith, whose older clients often have a unfathomable connection with their possessions, said, “They’re going through a life-review process and a grieving process. They’re reliving 20 years of their lives through their brickabrack” (AARP Magazine, p. 70). At a time when loss of control may be an issue, loss of “things” can seem quite unbearable. Jeanne says a listening ear can be a huge de-stressor. Just having someone to talk to about the memories before the things go out the door can make a big difference (Ibid, p. 71). Taking pictures of items that seem to have the strongest memory ties may help a person over the pain of parting with things. Pictures take a lot less space to store, especially if the pictures are digital. Writing about the memories as part of a personal life history might also help. No one wants their life to be forgotten, and perhaps keeping our things is symbolic of that desire. Documenting our lives in words may release us from the need to document them with so much of the stuff that reminds us of the memories.
Lightening the Load
Counselor Ed McCormack used to teach a course on how to improve your life by clearing out your house. He believes that our things should mirror our values-that to decide what to get rid of we need to ask ourselves “what is really valuable to me? How can I listen to my deepest self? How can I come from my best self instead of always going toward it? How can I clarify my values and connect with my deepest, best -with my real spirit identity? Can getting rid of what I don’t need help me get unstuck in my life? How can I get motivated to make the decisions I need to make to get unstuck? He says in regard to de-junking, “If a thing doesn’t enhance your enjoyment of life, build you up, or express your best self, it’s junk.” Another author suggested we ask ourselves if each object gives us energy or drains energy? If it drains energy-get rid of it!
We’ve all had the experience of pulling something out of its hiding place to discover that it has deteriorated with age. One of my husband’s old suits (beautiful quality at the time he bought it) was moth-eaten and useless. One of my old silver wedding gift trays was tarnished beyond recognition-and had never been used! There is something so freeing, so fun about getting rid of such things. It is as though I’ve been carrying each “thing” around in my brain, inventorying it even when I am not using it, and when it is gone, I feel physically lighter, and I think better. I have a remarkable feeling of relief every time I see heaps of stuff I haven’t used (or worn) for years go out the door.
Less Really is More
One of the greatest benefits of getting rid of stuff you don’t need is that you can find and better use what you have left. When I couldn’t find what I needed in my kitchen implement drawer I decided it was time to clean it out again. I discovered three things I had forgotten I had and am now using again! I also discovered that almost half the stuff in the drawer I haven’t used in years and probably never will again (especially the things I can’t even identify.) Every time I’ve opened that drawer since I cleaned it out I feel a sense of accomplishment and I breathe a big sigh of relief.
Last fall my sister helped me get rid of about half the clothes in my house. Do I miss them? No way! In fact, I feel I have more clothes now because I can find what I want without looking through so many things I don’t like, don’t need, and don’t want to wear.
Save Things That Can Turn Our Hearts to Our Ancestors
Before we get over-zealous in our cleaning out efforts, however, I’d be the first to admit that some things are worth saving. In 1995, at her 85th birthday party my mom’s daughters and granddaughters did a fashion show of about a dozen special outfits Mom had kept – all the way from a beautifully cut dress from the 1920s that she wore when she was dating my dad to the outfit she wore for her 50th wedding celebration.
I have saved my mother’s handwork, quilts, and afghans, and I use and treasure them. I have a couple of baby dresses that she made for me when I was tiny and pillow cases she embroidered for me when I was getting married nearly fifty years ago. An assortment of her pins framed on a velvet background (one given her by her mother as a keepsake from her grandmother) hangs on my wall. I have her journals, as well as a scrapbook full of cards inscribed with hand-written tender messages.
The same day I was thinking about all this I visited a friend, Suzanne Hansen, who had re-done her small living room as an “ancestor room.” As I stepped into the room she proudly showed me a beautiful old trunk her parents used when they moved from California to Utah. Inside she stores many large archival acid free black boxes – each labeled with an ancestor’s name. Inside the boxes are hand-made pieces of clothing, eyeglasses, coin purses, and letters, some more than a hundred years old. Each box also holds photos, a short history of the person and an explanation of each item inside.
Pictures of her grandmother, Anna Viktoria Lindberg, and her mother Anna Kristina (taken in 1916 in Sweden) grace one wall.
They were the first in their line to leave their homeland and journey to the United States (in October of 1920).
Restored and exquisitely framed pictures of her husband’s pioneer grandparents sit on end tables. On shelves of a tall bookcase are ancestor pictures from the early 1800s, along with a pair of Suzanne’s tiny baby shoes, antique cameras and wooden button boxes. Two smaller trunks hold some belongings of her Grandpa Parker – his wool sweater, his paintbrushes, his wallet, and a few of his letters and photos.
Suzanne says the room is a wonderful place to share ancestor stories with her young grandchildren; the photos and momentos help the ancestors come alive to the children. She says her grandchildren are intrigued to hold the very paintbrush used by Grandpa Parker. She tells them how he could make paint from the elements of the earth and was a master at matching the paint with any decor.
All these items bring an appreciation for the past into the present. Suzanne feels that through pictures, artifacts and stories, these ancestors are becoming a part of her grandchildren’s lives, and are giving the children a greater appreciation for the blessing of the present. They made me wish I had more such “clutter” in my home! But those few items are only representative, and wouldn’t be appreciated if they weren’t rare and few in number.
Seeing the Difference between Treasures and Junk
Apply the general rules to all the clutter of our lives–the no longer functioning walkman, the five stained T-shirts we haven’t worn for years and probably never will, the stacks of tapes and CDs that never get listened to-and simplify by letting go. But keep the treasures that may connect us more closely to our relatives.
Artifacts, handwritten journals, cards, and letters, and even special articles of clothing worn by the person (think of displays in any historical museum) can bridge the gap between generations. Let’s not get carried away and discard treasures. At the same time, for every one potential treasure in our cluttered drawers and closets, there are probably a hundred things we would never regret having parted company with!
If your little bit of livin’ is making any part of your house a heap, I suggest you take a deep breath, start on one small area, and lighten your load. Home is so much more fun when it isn’t a heap!
Note: Visit Darla’s website darlaisackson.com to learn about her books.