Monday, November 10, 2014

Confessions of a Clutter Junkie

Part One: The Junk Attacks

Last month, I moved out of a house that I'd been living in for over fifteen years. The change has been a welcome one: our old place was a one-bathroom, two-bedroom-plus-oversized-closet house which we outgrew years ago. In our new place, we not only have an abundance of bathrooms, but enough elbow room that I can turn in a complete circle without either bumping into a pile of stuff, or stepping on a cat.

That's the good part.

The not-so-good part is this: I have. A lot. Of junk. A lot.

The "junk" has been collected with the best of intentions: it's mostly books, dvds, and family treasures. But best intentions or not, that stuff takes up space. And gathers dust. And sometimes gets knocked over when you're rushing around trying to get ready for work in the morning.

Part Two: The Fantasies Form

So, thinking myself extraordinarily clever and efficient, I decided that instead of trying to move everything, we would donate a lot of our excess. But then the obvious truth smacked me in the face like a dust mop: just because I wasn't taking something to the new house didn't mean it didn't have to be packed. Like it or not, I couldn't just use a bulldozer to shovel it all into a pile, then put two fingers into my mouth and whistle for the Salvation Army to come pick it up (although the bulldozer was a frequent fantasy).

(Speaking of fantasies, I also invented a fantasy device which is basically a giant vacuum tube that would have allowed me to press a button and all my stuff would be sucked out of the old house, into the new. There are a few mechanical issues to be worked out, but as soon as technology catches up I'm sure it'll be a big hit.)

During our Great Pack-Up, I often told my family that we were going to become minimalists. "From now on," I'd say, "we're not going to own any more possessions than we can carry on our backs!" This idea didn't go over well, of course. And since I'm not up to carrying a sofa and flat-screen TV on my back, even I had to admit it wasn't really a practical plan.

Part Three: The Truth Becomes Unavoidable

So, the bulldozer was out, and living out of a backpack wasn't looking too workable (where would we have put the catboxes?). Although our former residence was small, the sheer volume of our possessions was astounding, and until it was time to move, I had allowed myself to just keep accumulating. Even now, after the bulk of the move is done, I own too many things that I don't use. That kind of abundance doesn't make me feel happy or prosperous; it just makes me feel exhausted, and a little sad.

Then, a few weeks ago, I read Marjanna's post here on the R8, The Burdens (and Vintage Kitchenware) We Carry that Aren't Our Own, and I realized that I'm not alone. Marjanna has been dealing with a similar challenge: helping her mother move from a house to an apartment. And packing her mom's kitchen, with its collection of memorabilia disguised as labor-saving devices, had been particularly difficult.

It seems that living with an overabundance of Stuff has become a common affliction. Kitchenware, clothes, electronic devices... so many of us have Too Much Stuff Syndrome. But the good thing about having a common affliction is that there are usually many people who are looking for a cure. I went in search of a few of those who have found a way to assuage the pain of possession. As usual, the Internet held all the answers.

Part Four: The Answers Begin to Take Shape

Online, I found three resources which have been particularly helpful:

The Minimalists - The very popular blog of two thirty-something guys from Ohio who found balance in their lives by reducing their possessions and hopping off the corporate track. I perused their blog for information and also listened to their audiobook. My biggest takeaway from the book was this realization: The things I own do not define who I am.

The 100 Thing Challenge by Dave Bruno - I'm always attracted to "journey stories": tales of people who have made a dramatic change in their lives and have come out better on the other side. This book is the story of a man who reduced his personal items down to 100 things, and lived that way for a year. Biggest takeaway from this book? Sometimes we buy things as a substitute for doing things. In my case, this would include an embarrassing number of blank journals. Those empty pages made me feel like a writer, because they "reminded" me of all the words I could write in them... but then never did. Weird, I know, but that's how I ended up being a clutter junkie.

Tiny - This is a documentary which I actually watched on Netflix some time ago. Although the description reads, "A young couple with no construction experience attempts to build a tiny house in this documentary that contemplates shifting American values," the thing I loved most about it was the pretty pictures: seeing how a variety of people had created big, beautiful lives for themselves out of tiny little homes. From this documentary, I took away the knowledge that if you want to live large, sometimes you have to build small.

Part Five: The Next Step Develops

Although I'm not quite prepared to live with only 100 things, or in a 100-square-foot home, I am more than ready to simplify my life, and that includes whittling down what I own to the things I need and love most. I'll let you know how it goes over the next year or so. In the meantime, do you have any tips for me, or any stories to share about having too much stuff?


  1. I've recently come to the same conclusion that sometimes we buy things instead of doing things. When I was sick, I would sometimes find myself on the internet. When I realized what I was doing, I stopped. Now that I'm back to writing, the urge has left me.

    You have to ask yourself - do you own these things or do they own you?

    1. Wow, I think it's really great that once you started writing again, the urge to shop began to fade. That's great, Lisa! And you are spot-on with that question, "do we own our things, or do they own us?"

      Thanks so much for your comment! :-)

  2. This fall I bit the (financial) bullet and signed up for a maid service. It's extravagant, indulgent, not particularly something I feel I can afford, but boy hardy, am I going to try to keep it.

    The number one reason? Initially it forced me to deal with several clutter piles that maybe migrated from place to place but never seemed to go away. Subsequently, it's become a great "hard deadline" to pick up my crap the night before the service comes. In between times, I generally stay tidier.

    Staying tidier has in fact given me space to declutter - I spent some time on Tuesday going through my walk in closet. I freed up space on the shelves AND can now walk in it again. Score!

    I suspect I will never live "light" but I'm in love with living calm. Calm for me means organized and clutter(ish)-free.

    Good luck, Misha!!

  3. Hi Misha,

    I'm with you and trying to divest of stuff. As a military spouse, I've kept many things that might work in one house, but not another, only to work in next location. Well, with new opportunities on the horizon, it's time to think more permanently and give away the things I really did re-use but have no use for now.

    It's this "permanent" mindset that helps me. Do I want to be living with an item in five years? In ten? That helps me feel less likely to impulse buy and more likely to donate item. Still, I've got a looong way to go.

    In the meantime, after reading the previous comment, I plan to hang out at Keely's newly organized place!

  4. Awesome, insightful post, Misha. Love it. We, too, have often fantasized about living the minimalist life. We've taken vacations in one-bedroom cabins (five of us living in the space), and it's been terrific. It did show us how much we can do without. Really the key is getting rid of the extra stuff. If you can figure out what that "extra" is. Good luck on your de-cluttering, simplifying journey. I'm looking at a similar quest myself. All the stuff in our house does add to the anxiety ... for both my husband and I. We will find a way to whittle away at that unintentional stressor, the abundance of "stuff." Great post!