Sunday, 9 April 2017
The Emotional Aspect of Possessions
William Morris wrote: Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.
I love this quote and always have. As with most beloved quotes, it appeals because it simply articulates what I believe. Although I have strayed from this sensible principle I am now back to living in accordance with it and find that it really does bring me peace.
I think this is essentially the message of Marie Kondo with her Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Although I've not actually read the book,I am aware of the gist of it from reading about it. I am also aware that there is a minimalist movement that can be read about in many places around the internet, and found on plenty of Vlogs as well. This is not to be confused with minimalism in art and design, although plenty of lifestyle minimalists also favour a minimalist aesthetic.
The attitudes to and about minimalism vary, including exactly how to define it, who is and isn't a minimalist and whether it matters. Some use the term rational minimalism or practical minimalism to describe something more suited to those who live in suburbia with families. Some speak of it as a journey more than a destination. Some say it's an attitude while others prefer a more prescriptive explanation of it. The principles of it have something to offer everyone though, and the reason for Marie Kondo's success is that nobody, not even the most dedicated maximalist, enjoys having too much stuff.
The definition of too much is a quantity that makes you tried, stressed, overwhelmed, constantly needs attention, organising, tidying and fixing. Over-consumption may be getting you into debt or just eating up more of your money than it has to. If none of these things are issues, you probably do not have too much by your own standards.
Why I am Not a Minimalist By Some Definitions
I have no desire to live like a student or a stereotypical young bachelor, to live out of a backpack while couch surfing (which I think is minimalism riding on the backs of others), travel is not my lifestyle, career not my focus and Japanese Zen or Scandinavian minimalism are not my aesthetic. I do not wish to only wear black, white and grey clothing. I do not move frequently nor do I wish to.
On the other hand, I do wish to live only with what I find useful or aesthetically pleasing. I do not wish to be emotionally attached to my belongings in a such a way that they hold me back or take over my life. I like a full but tidy and clean environment. I do feel burdened and weighed down if I have an accumulation of possessions I don't need and never use.
Empty walls and bare surfaces are rarely beautiful to my eye any more than is a cluttered accumulation of things I don't want, need or enjoy. Somewhere in between those states is my comfort zone. I am mostly a home body. I can understand how if a person is away from home all day and then likes to travel in her spare time, that a permanent home filled with possessions to worry about might be unwanted. That isn't my life. Home is my sanctuary and I love a home with colour, texture, layers and familiar comforting items. According to some I can still be a 'minimalist' because the point is to find my own personal sweet spot, which gets back to William Morris. For many, minimalism is a journey. It's not a race to get rid of everything and only own 50 items including clothing, it's a process of getting rid of what, for you, is excess. What/who defines excess? You do. Your needs and tastes are the guide.
Why is purging as thrilling as accumulating? This is a question I have to ask myself because for me it is and I know I am not alone. I think it has something to do with change, a feeling of accomplishment or progress. When I was newly separated and beginning a life on my own there was the feeling of starting over, of doing things my way and answering to no one and that was very exciting. I could decorate my home entirely according to my own tastes, spend money on a throw pillow if I wished to, stock up on linens if I believed in the need to. I was doing that thing they call nesting, tasting my freedom with gusto, figuring out who I was as an individual based on how I wanted to dress myself and decorate my home and indulging my liking for being over-prepared. Some might see it as a process that was a great waste of time and money but I see it as therapy. Yes, part of me would like to just have back the money I spent now that I am very clear on who I am, what I want and what I like, but in a convoluted way spending money on things actually was spending money on an experience. It was the experience of growth, self-knowledge and freedom.
An Emotional Journey
After the intense spending and accumulating came the purging. I had figured out what I wanted and needed in my life, what my taste is when I have complete freedom to choose and not accommodate anyone else, and I figured out how my life actually functions. Slowly I realised that looking after a family, entertaining friends, hosting house-guests, cooking big family dinners were all things that had gone from my life and I did not need to be equipped for them. Gradually I found my just-right level of clutter from purely decorative items and it was fun poking around second hand shops looking for things that appealed to me. I didn't want to live in a home that contained mainly items taken from my previous life, although I had been careful to select things that had meaning, very little that came with me had been chosen along with my ex-husband. I also had to leave items I valued, gifts, family heirlooms and furniture behind and that left a bit of an empty space emotionally. I needed to find out if it should be filled or forgotten. Although in a divorce each ex-partner is legally entitled to fifty percent of the shared belongings, I was leaving my ex behind in a large house and would myself be living in less than half the size, in an apartment with no need of anything for the outdoors so out of necessity I left behind things I did have an emotional attachment to. I also did this out of a misplaced sense of guilt. I was the one leaving and tearing apart the life we had shared, so I was overly generous.
The happy result of all my choices is that I created a home that looked lived in, collected over many years, and very personal. The trick to that is to buy what you love, buy it second hand, have nothing that is currently trendy in home decor and combine that with things you really have had forever, were handed down in your family or are being repurposed in some way. Over the course of several years items came in and went out again. I purged as much as I purchased, changing my mind, finding something better to replace something mediocre. Then I grew tired of that and just wanted to be done. The desire to shop for some new decorative item disappeared. The awareness that I didn't need any new bath towels or even as many as I already had grew so intense that I began to want to lighten the load. I had managed to get to the point where the void was filled well, too well. I could skim a little fat off the top.
I found myself really and truly only wanting to live with what I needed, regularly used, or really loved to look at. It is embarrassing even to privately think too much about the quantities I have donated to charity and thrift shops. Some mollification comes from it being things that came from there in the first place, as though I tried it out for a year and then returned it. The consumerism represented by it, the likely environmental impact of the materials that will just pile up in a landfill if nobody wants them, the shame of wasting the money are all issues I have to live with but I began to increasingly want to distance myself from it. I didn't want to live a life where I constantly felt the need to tidy and organise everything, needed to purchase organising containers, systems, pieces of furniture or shelving in order to store it all. I just wanted to easily find things I used regularly, with the unattractive items easily put away and out of sight, with no need to tidy up the cupboards every spring. I admit my home is still a bit of a dusting nightmare. There are more items to dust than any true minimalist would want but for me that is the cost of my personal taste and I am willing to pay it. I either have to live with the dust or hire someone to deal with it for me. It's a choice.
The Nitty Gritty
There are plenty of where to start, what to do lists on the internet as well as ideas suited to different lifestyles, living situations and This is mine along with my own experiences. These are the biggest areas and yet I found most of them easy to tackle. In some ways, the hardest part for me is the physical job of getting rid of stuff. That's a good reminder not to accumulate too much.
Linens- I still have an abundance
I had too many and was holding on to things that were ratty, ugly or never got used. This is often one of the easiest areas to purge, but although it is generally my habit to strip the sheets off the bed, launder them and put them back on, I still own three sets of sheets for my bed. This is too many even by my own definition but I have the space to store them and will just keep them as long as they are in good condition. I will probably never need to buy sheets again.
I have one set of bedding for the guest bed.
I have six bath towels, hand towels and 12 face cloths. I had more but I prefer keeping a selection of really old and stained towels for those times when one needs an old towel to mop up a flood or wrap up a sick pet so I keep three on hand. I also use them to roll-dry clothing items I have dyed, not worrying about any dye transfer. I donated several towels that were in good shape to the thrift shop. In time perhaps I will donate more. I certainly don't need to buy any towels.
blankets and bedspreads were accumulating because I was longing for something decorative on my bed but not really finding what I wanted. Buying something that will do is a waste of money so the not-loved blankets and bedspreads go to charity and I will wait until I see something I love or go without.
Hobby Supplies - Crafters are often hoarders. Some are very organised, have a whole room dedicated to it and really do use all that they have. I am one of those people who gets excited about different ideas which I end up never doing but I know what I love, what art materials I repeatedly use and what I will never do even though it seems appealing. I have purged many accumulated art and craft supplies and could likely purge more in the future.
Kitchen - Some people are quite content with a minimal selection of the tools and items they use daily and extreme minimalists are happy to have one set of dishes per person. I like cockery and I have a set of dishes that was a gift, it serves 12 because once upon a time I cooked family dinners of that size. I'm not ready to get rid of that and I do have the space to store it. I like some of my crockery on display too. I don't have a minimalist kitchen but I do use or love everything I have and have given away tools, appliances and baking pans that were never used. My cupboards are not overflowing in any way and everything is tidy so I am content with that.
The Storage Closet - I am among those people who tend to accumulate just in case items. I grew up in a family where it's practically a sin not to. One should be prepared. It is generally a point of pride for my mother to have had on hand that one obscure thing that was acquired twenty years ago and suddenly needed. This is a definition of independence and adulthood combined with frugality that I think is fairly typical of my parents' generation. It comes from having lived through or been raised by people who lived through hard times. You keep everything that could be useful, every bit of string, every lid missing a container but which could someday fit onto a container you have that is missing a lid. If you do not do this you have failed at being an adult. You have been wasteful and disorganised. Most of us have had the experience of holding onto something for years, finally getting rid of it and then wanting it or finding a need for it a week later. This is used as the justification for holding onto everything. I don't find it happens to me often enough to use that justification so I have begun to get rid of everything that I have not used in a year or more. A year is reasonable because it at least counts for every season, holiday or event that can be expected.
Papers- this one is tricky because I am terrible at organising papers, don't even have an organised computer and don't like the process of scanning, storing or organising on my computer, and tend to either hold onto papers for too long or toss them out too soon. Sometimes I panic because I have lost track of an important receipt to prove I purchased an item from the shop I am not asking to repair or replace it. I am trying to improve and streamline my system for dealing with important papers. I don't think any one system works for everyone. This is definitely my weak spot. My e-mail files are a disaster.
Clothing- Experimentation has taught me that I like my clothing to be fairly simple. My lifestyle is casual, I have specific requirements for comfort, limited access to clothing that suits my tastes and preferences and is of quality, and I don't find joy in playing with clothing. I am happy to have some favourite colours, a basic daily uniform and nothing so precious I have to worry about ruining it. While I don't set any guidelines about how much of anything I 'should' have, I end up within the realm of what many consider minimalist. I didn't deliberately set out to do that, I just got rid of what I didn't wear, didn't love and wasn't decent quality. I did the same with footwear. Doing this is an ongoing process because needs and tastes change over time, something better comes in so something lesser can go. Having slightly more than enough and it all works together almost entirely removes the desire to go shopping for something new. It definitely reduces that desire.
Accessories, handbags and jewelry fall in line with my approach to clothing. I have slightly more than I need, enough to have some variety but I love what I have and don't crave more.
Home Decor -This is very personal but most of what I have is loved though not precious. Once in awhile I stop loving something and so I put it in a donation bag. Sometimes I suddenly think a certain surface looks cluttered and I move things around, take something away and wait a month or so to see if I miss it. Most likely I don't so it gets donated. It's a matter of eyeballing the room and seeing if everything looks like it belongs, is intentional, to throw in another of those buzzwords. It seems as though the process is an ongoing thing, aiming for the right balance for me of too much versus not enough. A shelf can look unattractively empty to me as much as it can look unattractively cluttered.
Some Final Thoughts on Purging
I sometimes struggle with the guilt of putting things into the landfill. It's as though holding onto them is some sort of penance for having caused this situation, having created items that need to be disposed of and which I know are not going to biodegrade well. This lead to an accumulation of old sheets, which I called drop clothes. I never used them but there they were, in case I needed to protect the floor or some furniture. There isn't any good solution I know of for dealing with the guilt of items that have nowhere else to go but the landfill. Having to face it is a good reminder to step out of the process that contributes to this issue, to buy less so that eventually there is less to dispose of.