We all have ‘stuff’. Most of us have too much of it. We spend time de-cluttering. We waste time looking through ‘stuff’ for misplaced essentials. We spend time sorting and organizing ‘stuff’. And yet, if you’re like me, the amount of ‘stuff’ keeps growing despite strong efforts to create order.
For several months I have worked to organize and de-clutter my home environment. There has been some success but the process is never-ending. Over the years I have accumulated many possessions — some with monetary value; most with value based on memories and nostalgia.
Despite embracing the concepts of simple living and mindful consumption, I realize that the culture of acquisition that surrounds me is pervasive. I have a love/hate relationship with ‘stuff’ even though I try not to be defined by possessions.
Since retiring, I buy less ‘stuff’ and use less ‘stuff’ but I have not successfully cleared all the clutter in my environment. I ask myself why this problem persists as I have devoted considerable effort to de-cluttering.
The clutter-free gurus tell us to go through our homes room by room and assess each object. Techniques include making three piles: for garbage, for donation to charity, and for keeping. Objects that have not been used for a certain length of time are to be disposed — preferably into the piles for garbage or donation.
These techniques do work and the sense of freedom that comes from getting rid of excess ‘stuff’ is great. There are some things that I just can’t — or won’t — get rid of.
Drastic De-Cluttering When Down-Sizing
My friends who have down-sized speak of the difficulties of eliminating certain pieces of furniture, of sorting through books, sports equipment, dishes and clothes as they prepare for life in a smaller house or an apartment. They also talk about the trauma of parting with certain items. One woman went back to the Salvation Army to buy some of the things she had donated earlier only to find that the items were sold. She was mortified. These items — personal artifacts to her — meant more than she realized when she made the donation.
I remember when my sister and I worked with my mom to clear her home of items that she could not take with her when she moved. Mostly the disposing and sorting was cooperative as mom was ready to move to a smaller space. But over the two weeks of this process, we sometimes found mom taking things out of the donation boxes and putting them into the keeping pile. When I saw her doing this, she smiled sheepishly. Through tears she told me how painful it was to forever let go of items that were precious to her.
I have not faced such drastic changes. We have not moved in 21 years and we have lots of space in our house which is a mixed blessing. I am, however, constantly evaluating what is excess and I have spurts when I empty closets and cupboards that have started bulging.
Regardless of these efforts, some ‘stuff’ remains and I remember my mother’s comment about how painful it is to give up treasured possessions. My wedding dress, my son’s christening blanket, certain family heirlooms, favourite sweaters, some of my books — these items aren’t even being evaluated for disposal.
This is the type of ‘stuff’ that I cling to. It brings a sense of comfort. Why? Is it emotional? Is it sentimental? Is it a childish need for security? What is the basis for craving certain ‘stuff’? I’m still working on figuring out the reason.
Accept that you like certain ‘stuff’
I know that I am not ready for minimalism. Stark environments leave me feeling cold and dissatisfied. Given options, most people don’t choose to sleep or live in the plastic and stainless steel environment of a cafeteria which is how some minimalist settings feel.
There is comfort in having favourite pictures, tchotchkes, and other memorabilia. This is especially true when, during my career, I spent many nights in hotel environments devoid of the coziness of home. When you don’t have your ‘stuff’ — you crave it.
My possessions offer a sense of stability. It is about a feeling — a feeling of home, of the people I love and of the times in my life when good memories were created.
Enjoying ‘stuff’ without living in a cluttered environment
While I don’t like clutter, I want the warmth and comfort of having certain possessions around me. They are part of my identity.
As I’ve thought about how I can enjoy ‘stuff’ without living in a cluttered mess, certain guidelines have emerged.
1. Be objective about ‘stuff’. Too much stuff is oppressive and that’s why de-cluttering gives a sense of freedom. One easy marker happens when I think of buying more shelves for books, or storage boxes, or containers. That is my signal that there is excess and that it’s time to pitch some things to make room.
2. Don’t be ashamed of keeping ‘stuff’ that is loved. If something evokes a feeling of comfort or a memory of something that is precious, keep it and savour the joy it brings to your life. I remember my sister telling me how much she hated an old brown chair that her husband loved but she kept it when they down-sized. When forced to live on her own, this worn chair became her favourite spot to sit and think.
3. Separate your real identity from your ‘stuff’. With retirement we learn that we are more than our career. We are not what we did during our career. Likewise, ‘stuff’ should not define who we are nor what we are capable of doing. Research has shown that as we age there is a tendency to seek to preserve identity through possessions. While we may want to leave some possessions to the next generation, it is worth considering that many items won’t have meaning to our children and grandchildren. Leave good memories — not possessions.
4. Get support/help. Just as you seek help for medical issues or advice in managing finances, you can get help with sorting your stuff. There are experts who help with de-cluttering and organizing if you are over-whelmed. I haven’t yet gone this route but I know that when I need to down-size and move, I will need a professional to help me sort through my possessions and help me to let go.
Possessions do provide feelings of security and well-being. Living with familiar and loved items defines who we were in the past, who we are now, and how we see ourselves. They are extensions of our lives.
As I have recognized that aspects of myself are intertwined with my ‘stuff’, I’ve become less troubled and less frantic about getting rid of it. I accept that I am not defined by my possessions but that they evoke pleasant memories, give the security of personal history, and supply comfort in my postworksavvy lifestyle.