Cleaning, with just a slight bend toward austerity
I went through my closet yesterday, to sort out clothes that I don’t wear anymore. It felt fantastic.
Growing up, my mother would periodically have my brothers and I go through our things — we’d pick the toys we didn’t play with anymore, the books that were too easy for us and the clothes that no longer fit, and we’d give them away to the Goodwill. I remember doing this several times a year, especially around the holidays when we got an influx of new things.
I’m thankful that my mother inculcated in us a sense of giving, and that we were fortunate enough to have enough in which we had stuff to spare.
Now that I’m older, these habits of keeping down the clutter have deepened, especially since I’ve moved about five times and lived in three different countries. That, and I’ve seen some shit.
The freest I’ve ever felt was when I had everything I owned in two suitcases. Moving, especially to a foreign country, forces you to decide what you *really* want to have with you, by your side. There’s something about not worrying about all that stuff, about only bringing the best of the the best with you that’s liberating. Besides, you can always get more stuff. Leave the stuff behind that you don’t absolutely need or love.
George Carlin famously said that, “A house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.” I hate it, but I think he’s right. We live in a culture that’s all about chasing the next big thing. Whether it’s keeping up with the Joneses, fear of missing out, or striving to be an early adaptor — it’s all about getting more stuff.
Now that we’ve been in one place for almost three years, I have noticed that we’ve started developing a nice little collection of stuff in our apartment. It’s still pretty minimal, but we definitely have more things than when we moved in. I do try to stay as close as I can to the one in, one out rule, but there are always exceptions here and there. It starts to add up.
I make sure to regularly cull out my closet, keep the fridge tidy, and ask myself honestly if we’re ever actually going to play Rockband for Wii ever again or if we really need four tea pots.
Is it actually bringing me any joy by having it? Is there someone who could get more joy out of this than me?
I remember reading an article in The New York times about an organizer named Marie Kondo, who wrote, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, whose main premise was that you should discard everything that does not “spark joy.” This is basically what I’ve been practicing all my life, just a little more refined.
More than that, she practices a high-level sense of respect for objects, enjoining us to treat them kindly, to put them away neatly, respectfully, and to thank them for their service when you’re “retiring” them or giving them away. I see no harm in this, though I don’t necessarily practice the same level of reverence. When it comes to cleaning, I’m pretty ruthless. Heck, I even keep my junk drawer neat.
Most of the people that I’ve known who struggle to get rid of things seem to share one commonality: these folks are not necessarily attached to the objects per se, but more so to an idea. Usually, it’s the idea that these items can be used for something — that they need to keep it just in case, or for a specific project, or more often than not it was intended to be used as a gift for someone. These people get buried under the possibilities, and are afraid to let go of the “what ifs.”
I‘ve seen it with my own eyes: boxes stacked to six feet high with narrow “goat trails” in between, antique chairs rotting under tarps, garbage bags filled with plastic hangars. Saving it all for a “what if” that never comes, for someone who doesn’t want it or need it, for no reason any more.
Subconsciously, I believe that they look for the human connections they’re missing, by focusing on their things.
Are we all just trying to fill the voids in our souls with stuff?
So I ask myself from time to time, especially after I’ve let myself watch an episode too many of Hoarders — in the end, does all this stuff matter? Who, not what, matters most?
If I lost everything in a fire, or had to flee the country, or had to give it all away, would I be OK? Can I part with this or that and still live a long prosperous life? Is it still worth it to buy more, cheaper things, or is it time to start getting fewer, better things? Does any of it matter in the end, when we can’t take anything with us anyway?
As I stared at my closet, a mix of old and new, well-made and cheap fast-fashion pieces, I knew it could be worse. I know I’m not like that. And I never will be.
There’s a difference between being practical and being unrealistic. There’s a difference between being thrifty and stockpiling. There’s also a difference between cleaning house and asceticism.
Just as people can get obsessive about keeping things, so too, can people get obsessive about getting rid of things. The goal then, is to practice moderation in all things, with just a slight bend toward austerity.