I recently read back through all my old blog posts (on this and other blogs) and was rather embarrassed to find a theme, going back almost a decade. From 2011 I have, at regular intervals, been writing about decluttering. Not decluttering in the abstract, but my own attempts at achieving a simpler life with less Stuff.
Since then, I have moved house no fewer than five times, and am about to move again. Each time, I have spent days, weeks, months, sorting through Stuff. I have benefited my local charity shops to the tune of many hundreds of pounds worth of donations. I have made a lot of people happy with my cast-offs. I have spent much more than was necessary on house moves, because of the amount of Stuff which needed to be packed and moved each time.
I have read a lot of blogs and books on decluttering (I even have a friend who is a professional declutterer, and if I’d met her earlier in the process I might well have engaged her services!). I have internalised Marie Kondo’s principles (I even rolled my socks up for a while). I have read books on Stuff, agonised about Stuff, packed up boxes of Stuff, and driven countless carloads of Stuff to charity shops and recycling centres.
What have I learned?
I had a shocking amount of Stuff. No, really, I did. It’s obscene. After nearly a decade of active decluttering, I still have a home that is far from sparsely furnished and which contains plenty of books, art, clothes, kitchen and tableware, and sentimental items. I think I’m just about there, though, finally. This is probably an acceptable amount of Stuff for a woman of 50 in the UK to own. I’m just acutely embarrassed about how much Stuff I had.
I am ashamed of how much money I spent on Stuff. There have been many things I have not done in my adult life because I felt I couldn’t afford it. But the purchase price of the Stuff I have decluttered would have paid for all of those ambitions, with plenty to spare. I appear to have chosen Stuff above Life.
I have a powerful emotional attachment to Stuff. This takes two forms: firstly, I feel responsible for it – I can’t just dump it, it’s my responsibility to make sure that it is rehomed/recycled/sold on to someone who will use it. It’s partly an environmental thing, and partly something I haven’t quite got to the bottom of yet, which is around a kind of anthropomorphism of Stuff, whereby each item is something I have called into being and now it’s my duty to do right by it. Odd, isn’t it?!
Secondly, I have discovered that I feel really uneasy about not having much stuff. Reading books on minimalism makes me feel acutely uncomfortable. How can having only a few clothes, and sleeping on a mattress on the floor, be something to aspire to? It just evokes images of refugees, and living in squats, and I can’t imagine how somewhere so Spartan could ever feel homely. A lot of thinking, and long conversations with my long-suffering partner (who has never in her life had Too Much Stuff, and is rather bewildered about the concept – why would you want to have more Stuff than you actually need?!) has made me realise that the Stuff is, for me and for many other people, tied up with a lot of complex emotions.
A lot of my Stuff relates to creative projects, which get mixed up with issues around identity. If I decide to do or make something, I first get “every book ever written on the subject” (I quote my partner!), and every bit of kit/materials/tools I might conceivably need. When (as is often the case) life moves on and I don’t get round to completing the project (or, all too often, even starting it), the Stuff is a silent reproach. It’s not just about the wasted money, but it’s about mourning for the project that never happened – and for not being, after all, the kind of person who would have done that project. If I get rid of my wool and my loom, I am also getting rid of my identity as an aspiring textile artist. Stuff and identity become intertwined.
The unhappier I am, the more I crave being surrounded by my Stuff. It needs to be my own stuff – not just clutter, but things that I have chosen to have in my home. Even if there are far too many of them for the space available. Somehow, it makes me feel safe. This has made decluttering even more difficult, as it’s usually initiated by stressful events (moving house) which are precisely when I’m likely to be more emotionally dependent on my ‘shell’ of Stuff.
Whilst the last few years of my life could hardly be described as peaceful, they have nevertheless been years of growing happiness and contentment. And I have recently discovered that I have reached a tipping point. The burden of having all this Stuff – paying to have it moved, paying to store it, keeping it clean and in good repair, and generally having it take up brainspace as well as physical space – has finally outweighed the emotional benefit of having my Stuff around me. I no longer need my ‘shell’. No, I’m still not going to sleep on a mattress on the floor if I can help it, but I’m finally able to follow William Morris’ dictum: “Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.
So, where does that leave me now?
We are preparing to move house (again). This time, and for the first time in as long as I can remember, the only things I’ll be moving are things that are either useful or beautiful (or, in a few cases, family Stuff of which I am currently the custodian). No “but I might still do that project” Stuff, no “but it might come in useful” Stuff, no “but it took me ages to track that book down ten years ago” Stuff, no “but that was really expensive, I can’t get rid of it” Stuff. Less Stuff, more space. Less Stuff, more experiences. Less Stuff, more life.