There are very few people in the world who do not have too much stuff. Generally, people accumulate as they exist and it’s easier to gain more things than it is to get rid of them. All my life, I’ve had tendencies towards hoarding–afraid to let go of things thinking that if I got rid of a sweater my mother gave me for Christmas that something terrible would happen–which is why I got “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.”
It’s not that I’m a particularly messy person myself; actually, messes and clutter are major sources of anxiety for me, and I try to either clean up or avoid messes entirely because of that reason. That’s not to say I dust my room every day or am compulsive about vacuuming (I’m also stupendously lazy), but I don’t think it takes much effort to just put things away or load dirty dishes into a dishwasher. I can do it, so I do.
That said, for all the organizational practices I keep, I still have too much stuff. Way too much stuff, actually. Excess, I think, became a part of the American Lifestyle a long time ago, and that’s totally normal. Just because it’s normal doesn’t mean that it’s sustainable, though. Let me put it this way: at the last count (before I started getting rid of things), I had over 1000 books. That’s too many books. I’m an English person, and that’s still too many books.
The last time I moved was an awful experience, not only because of the circumstance, but also the sheer volume of stuff I owned. It wasn’t just books, but that took up a big part of it. A lot was, honestly, junk that I was holding onto for sentimental reasons. It took until fairly recently for me to start getting rid of things.
Part of that is something that I can attribute to having taught Thoreau for at least four weeks. He’s very big on the whole “simplifying” thing, as I’m sure you know already, and that affected me in some part. I want to live in a way that I get the most out of my life, and I don’t know how possible that is if I have no room to breathe. (Sure, I doubt living in an actual closet has helped any, but there’s still the abundance of material goods around me.) So I started thinking about Thoreau, but I’m more of a Whitman Romanticist than a Thoreau Romanticist, and I don’t see myself as Spartan in what I want my life to be. Living in the woods with one plate, a fork, and other bare necessities isn’t me.
Which is a major issue when it comes to the kind of conversation most American organization experts have surrounding clutter and things: for many people, it’s all or nothing. You can have x number of shirts, but you can’t have more than that. You should get rid of anything you haven’t worn in x number of years. Et cetera. Not that it’s terrible advice (why keep something you aren’t using?), but that method of discarding is something that turns people away. It’s not always about whether or not you’ve used a thing, it’s about whether or not you like it. Yes, we all have too much stuff, but that doesn’t mean we all have the same needs when it comes to the things we should keep. For example, I don’t enjoy cooking enormous dishes, and I don’t host parties, so I might not need a bunch of kitchen supplies, but if I were someone who cooked frequently and in such a way that I might need specialty tools, well, then wouldn’t I want to keep them?
Marie Kondo, the author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” gets that. Her rule of thumb for discarding items is that you should only keep the things that make you happy, and it’s telling that she places the emphasis on the things you keep rather than the things you get rid of. I don’t think it’s unreasonable kind of advice to give people, particularly when people have trouble with the amount of stuff they own. She wants people to only keep the things they need, but she acknowledges that happiness itself is a human need, and that different people are going to have different things that make them happy. While most other dialogue regarding cleaning up your act and getting rid of the things you don’t need take a “one-size fits all” approach to what people should own, Kondo avoids that kind of attitude. (There’s even a point where she mentions that people who love books might be happy with just books, and if someone has accumulated a lot of religious items, it might be a good idea to set up a shrine area in their home for that purpose.)
I had already started getting rid of things before I started reading the book, since it’s a necessity and I don’t want to go through the pain of having over 50 boxes to move again when I might only need a few to get the job done. Prior to reading the book, I had ready gotten rid of about 20 bags of stuff by bringing them to Savers as donation items (for the most part, I keep my things in pretty good condition). I currently have several more waiting, and I made at least one trip after starting that included around 15 bags of arts and craft supplies that I don’t use anymore. I don’t need them, and, more importantly, these things don’t make me happy. In fact, having too much stuff I think weighs people down more.
There are other tactics that I’m trying out from the book (her style of folding shirts is interestingly similar to how my father would fold them, which was something he learned when he had to save space on a submarine), and I’m still working on getting rid of more stuff. I think back to Thoreau’s advice to “Simplify, simplify, simplify!” and that was my initial defense against feeling guilt for getting rid of things–it is better to live simply than to over clutter my life–but Kondo’s explanation that, as long as the thing has served its purpose (whether that means giving you excitement when you bought it, or whatever), you shouldn’t have to feel guilty at all. It has done its work, and you’re probably happy for having had it when it did, and it’s okay to let go of things you don’t need.
If you’re in a position where you feel like you need to get organized or that your material goods are possibly weighing you down, Marie Kondo might be the woman to look to for advice on paring down. She has a few other books out as well, and while some people might consider her a little extreme in her methods, I like them. She seems to encourage genuine respect for the things you do have, and to find happiness and a safe space in your own home. What’s better than that?