I can only watch so much campaign coverage before I feel the need to think about cleaning and decluttering. Must be Trump’s constant patter about how rich he is and how much stuff he owns that reminds me of how we Americans embrace excess. We eat too much food, drive urban assault vehicles, fill our closets beyond capacity, and simply stated, buy too much stuff. We delight in sales, discounts, and our credit cards, wearing out Amazon’s “one click” button, especially now that it saves us the trouble of actually walking into a store.
Despite impoverishing us and burdening us with debt-ridden angst, Consumerism seems to be our one true religion and preaching thrift is heresy. Malls are houses of worship and our residences, which keep getting larger, are warehouses for our bounty. Storage sheds dot the city landscapes because our attics are full!
Attics, in fact, are no longer the romantic places of repose for grandmothers’ love letters or grandfathers’ military memorabilia. More likely, we climb up to find Christmas decorations we no longer have energy to put up at Christmas, old lamps that may have value as antiques (we must look into that!), boxes of college papers, old typewriters, and the toys of our grown children’s youth. All are testaments to our failings in Possessions Management 101.
Who would have believed that our own failings could spawn thriving businesses? Container Store. Need I say more? Such success for this kind of store would have been unthinkable in the 50s when most people had two or three pairs of shoes, a few dresses, a couple of suits, and maybe a week’s worth of casual clothes and underwear.
And when did people start amassing collections? Not just a few trinkets and knickknacks, but significant items claiming massive storage space in our lives, be they frogs, owls, salt and pepper shakers, beanie babies, antique dolls, political buttons, etc. I used to consider myself immune to such mania, but with the demise of a couple of family members, I, too, succumbed, as heir to a collection weighted with nostalgia and beauty that would be an absolute crime to dismantle or leave to strangers!
Yet, I’ve moved others and myself enough times to realize that we are suffocating ourselves with stuff. As I dispersed the items in my mother’s, and then, my father’s houses upon their final moves, I made vows to make it easier for my kids upon my departure. (Let me apologize, in advance, to my sons for bra and panties drawers. I like my lingerie, but I urge you to just toss them en masse – I promise not to hide any money or other valuables among them.)
Generally, as I make these vows, I’m reminded of reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond in my college days. Although he made a compelling case that the only free individuals are those who can carry all of their belongings on their back (or building them as needed when you go to live at Walden Pond), I had few possessions to worry about then. Accordingly, his philosophy was relegated to the good-idea-someday department that has since been renamed as the wish-I-had-listened department.
Some advice has been a bit more motivating — Sarah Ban Breathnach’s daybook called Simple Abundance, for example. Her collection of 365 essays was written to help women find their authentic selves by uniting spirituality with lifestyle. Breathnach encourages the keeping of gratitude journals and theorizes that the more we divest ourselves of things we don’t need, the more room we create room for abundance, i.e., good things, coming our way. At the time I read the book, the concept of “abundance” seemed a bit vague as reward systems go, but it sounded good enough to try. Simple abundance eluded me, however, as my efforts were probably too minimal.
Another approach that made a lot of sense to me was espoused by a French woman in an article (which I can’t find now). She explained closet management from an economic perspective. A closet, she said, is real estate that has a certain dollar value (proportion of total square footage multiplied by amount of rent or mortgage payment). With that number in mind, the author suggested ruthlessly analyzing the items in a closet. If any piece of clothing is not “working” to earn its keep on your property, get rid of that non-performer! Based on this advice, I removed a few items from the closet, admittedly, extending way too many second chances to some slackers.
Although I’d find it hard to do, the most unique approach to attacking consumerism and its attendant storage problem was devised by David Bruno in The 100 Thing Challenge. As an athletic and adventurous guy, he quite sensibly motivated himself with a decluttering scheme as something like a trek to the mountaintop and chose the number 100 as a “Goldilocks” number (neither too few or too many). But paring down to 100 things was just the first part – Bruno set a goal of remaining below 100 items for a year, strictly justifying any new purchases or gifts by trading it out for something else in his inventory. For me, this method of decluttering is too much like a 1200 calorie diet! I’d surely tire of maintaining that inventory and depriving myself of chocolate cake, I mean, something new that really caught my fancy . . . even if only a year.
The latest option I considered in my decluttering studies is Marie Kondo’s NYT best-selling The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, claimed by many as the bible of deacquisitioning. The method she prescribes in her little turquoise tome boils down to keeping only those possessions that produce a spark of joy. Yes, spark of joy. I bought the Kindle “executive summary,” which didn’t spark an ah-ha moment, much less help me grasp the sparking joy part, so I’ve yet to jump on the Kondo bandwagon. Of course, maybe if I read the whole book, I’d be raving about it. Maybe I’d find more inspiration in her mandate to respect your possessions by eschewing hangers and closets and, instead, using Japanese folding techniques and origami-like drawer organization. Perhaps I’d truly appreciate that my clothes “feel” squashed in the closet and prefer being folded like flags and filed in a drawer. Maybe.
As one who has studied these various clearing-out methodologies, I have surprisingly made merely a modicum of progress in my own efforts. Maybe next, I need to read Jane Saruwatari’s book, Behind the Clutter, wherein she explores the psychology of retaining our possessions long past their expiration dates. Is it our way of holding on to the past, Jane?
Or maybe, as David Bruno theorizes, we keep buying (and storing) in a quixotic quest to bridge the space between who we are and who we would like to be. As he says,
We can pursue the dream life of American-style consumerism, but only by relentlessly getting more possessions and using them to try to be more than we actually are. We must keep it up, because they will always fail to make us completely satisfied. We must continually ask our things to make us happy.
Yes, there must be complicated explanations behind our fervor as consumers and low-grade hoarders. While our parents could blame the Depression, we baby boomers did not fear scarcity and lack of buying power. Unscarred by the need for austerity, did we succumb instead to an affluenza that was the logical byproduct of our parents experiences? In other words, did our parents indulge us because of the tendency of every generation to give to the succeeding ones the childhoods they wished for themselves?
The bottom line, I think, is that we need to employ deep honesty in dealing with our consumerism and de-stuffing our houses, storage sheds, and attics. I know it will take a commitment that I’ve yet to master, but I intend to keep trying. In so doing, maybe I can conjure up some sparks of joy, find the simple abundance of enough, and hear the sweet sound of waves on Walden Pond lapping the shores and drowning out the voice of Donald Trump!