This morning I watched The Labyrinth with my five-year-old. (Aside: I am so happy he’s really old enough to appreciate and watch it with me!)
And one of the scenes that has always stuck with me, and which struck me even as I watched it today for the thousandth time, is when Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) finds herself in the junkyard.
A hunched woman with piles of junk on her back tries to convince Sarah that her material possessions is what she was looking for. But as Sarah handles her various possessions – a teddy bear, a wind up dancer, a lipstick – Sarah remembers she is looking for her baby brother, who she needs to save from the Goblin King (David Bowie).
I am deeply repulsed by this image, of the darkening sky over a land of junk as far as the eye can see, as solitary figures dig to add more junk to their hunched and overloaded backs.
And whilst the metaphor is heavy handed and made for all ages to get, it remains powerfully apt for me.
We are drowning in junk
From the plastic piling up in our landfills and oceans to the rise in self storage because we have more stuff than we can fit in our homes, there is too much stuff.
And our homes have also become bigger than they once were. The 1905 workers cottage where I live was originally even smaller than it is now, having been extended during its lifetime to build a third room upstairs and a tiny kitchen and bathroom downstairs. I can’t imagine how a family of four might have lived here when it was just two rooms downstairs and two upstairs.
And the junk isn’t what we’re looking for.
Just as Sarah in the movie was looking for her baby brother Toby, and the stuff was just a distraction, our stuff more often than not is not what we need or really want to be happy.
The growing popularity of Marie Kondo, decluttering experts, tiny houses (even if only watching shows about them on TV), and minimalism attest to the fact people are looking for something beyond the stuff.
Reasons to simplify and get rid of the junk
There are a number of reasons people want to rid their lives of junk.
- Junk begets junk. Ever had a junk drawer? Like Monica’s secret closet on Friends, once you have some stuff lying around it becomes far easier to get another thing. Or once you put one piece of clothing on the spare chair in the bedroom, it’s that much easier to throw a cardigan there later on. Then the jeans you might rewear tomorrow… Getting rid of junk makes it easier to avoid accumulating more.
- The negative space helps the things you do own shine. Just as in design, you need the negative space for the object of your design to have impact. Once decluttered of the stuff you don’t use/need/really want, it’s easier to find the things you do need. I always find that after a decluttering, my house is easier to clean and keep clean, and my surroundings are calming, attractive, and it just feels lovely to sit and enjoy them. When everything in my wardrobe fits me, suits me, and is in good nick ready to wear, it’s so much easier to get dressed without overloaded drawers or a bulging wardrobe.
- Clutter drains energy. I don’t mean in a woo sense, but genuine mental energy. It’s distracting. It catches your mind’s subconscious attention. And whatever the clutter represents bogs down your mental energy. A stack of credit card bills can make you think of financial worries (I find even when I’ve paid the bills – just seeing them there gives me an undercurrent if anxiety). For a while I had a stack of seeds on the mantle that I wanted to sow in the garden. It was like a To Do list staring at me every time I sat in the room. But this drag on one’s mental energy can be cleared – by completing be action. Known as the Zeigarnik effect after psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik found waiters forgot customers’ orders as soon as they were completed, our minds hold onto information as long as we need it and release it once the task is completed. So paying my bill and then filing it or shredding it closes the loop and frees up that mental real estate. Sowing the seeds or making peace with the fact I am not going to do it and composting them instead frees my mind from that task.
- Models a healthy relationship with stuff for our kids. I really believe modelling is one of the subtlest but most powerful ways of instilling lessons and ideas in our kids. So as easy as it may be to tell my son he doesn’t need yet another toy when we go to the shops, I undermine that when I impulse buy another mug or an extra decorative pillow we don’t need.
So if you’re interested in decluttering, either all in one go or bit-by-bit, here are some tips.
- Put stuff you want to get rid of in a box and write the date on it. Don’t write anything indicating what’s inside. Then set yourself a time limit – a month? a year? – at the end of which if you haven’t had to open the box to get something from it, take the sealed box to the charity shop.
- Donate any clothes you haven’t worn in a year. If you really loved it or it suited you, you’d wear it. If it needs ironing but you don’t iron, you’ll never wear it. Give it to someone who will.
- If you find you’re reluctant, explore with yourself (honestly) what the item represents. A muffin pan may represent that you wish you were the type of person who bakes. But you don’t bake. So why have it fall down on you when you’re trying to get out the saucepan you do use to make dinner most nights? This can be tricky. I want to be the kind of person who reads certain books, or sews, or plays piano. But I haven’t used my keyboard piano since 2009. Yet it still sits upstairs for “when I have time” to pick it back up. As I write this I know how silly that is – I have two young kids and a long list of hobbies and interests I want to pursue or pick up again “when I have time” (there’s that phrase again!). I WON’T HAVE TIME FOR A WHILE. And when I do, I’m pretty certain some of the other things on that list will take priority over relearning the piano. It is hard letting go of being a piano player though, even if that version of me only exists in my mind.
- Make a digital copy. We are fortunate to live in an age of nearly limitless cloud storage. If you don’t feel like you can get rid of the physical item, sometimes you can cheat by making a digital copy and throw out the physical clutter. Bills or receipts can be scanned (or get an electronic version in the first place). Children’s artwork can be photographed. Books can be bought as e-books. Having a back up digital version leads nicely to the next tip…
- If you really need it, you can replace it. This could mean printing off the copy you scanned (see above) or buying again. While decluttering usually means saving money, so the thought of shelling out money to buy something you own at the moment can feel counter intuitive, I found this comforting. If in five years I have time and I still want to play piano, I can buy a keyboard then. To be honest, the money I’ve spent on the percentage of my rents/mortgages for the space that this keyboard has taken up so it can gather dust for the past…oh my god, NINE years since I played it regularly…is more than it will cost me to buy another keyboard in the future. We sometimes cling to stuff from a mindset of scarcity, so remembering that very few things are truly irreplaceable can take the edge off the anxiety of letting it go.
- Give it to someone. Seeing where your stuff goes and knowing it is getting a second lease on life can make letting go easier. I recently posted photos of a perfectly-good-but-never-used food processor and mortar and pestle on a local Facebook group. They were picked up the very next day by someone who had been looking for exactly those items. Handing them over to a smiling person and the sound of a heartfelt thank you felt great.And I felt like my things were going to a new home where they would be loved, used, and appreciated. (I may look at things like the toys in Toy Story movies and project anthropomorphic desires to be useful on them…I blame The Brave Little Toaster). Anyway, it felt good being the generous stranger and knowing my stuff would get used again. I also gave my son’s baby things to a friend who’s expecting his first child. He saves money, I get to get rid of stuff that was used for maybe three months at most, and everyone’s happy.
- Savour rather than cling. Change happens. Babies become children who grow into adults and move away. It’s tempting to hold onto every toy/vest/blanket/etc a baby has touched, but that won’t help us hold onto the baby. That baby will still be a toddler in the blink of an eye. So dress the baby in that favourite outfit as much as you can. Take photos and snuggle the hell out of the baby. Then in two months when the outfit doesn’t fit, give it to someone who needs to dress their baby. No joke that my baby has worn hand-me-downs where he’s been the fourth or fifth child in the hand-me-down chain, and you wouldn’t know it. I shudder to think how many baby items are out there unused or sitting in a landfill because we all insist we need to get new stuff, the “best” stuff, for a baby. The stuff won’t make us better parents, but it’s tempting to buy the best in the hopes this will be an omen for how good a job we’ll do raising little people into good, honest, happy adults.
Some of this feels a bit philosophical in a blog post about clutter, but as with the tip of understanding what the item represents, getting to grips with this idea helps shift our entire relationship to stuff. It reminds us that stuff is not going to make us safe, or slow down time, or stop change. It doesn’t give us control.
And before any of us starts to beat ourselves up for acquiring so much stuff in the first place, or remarking on how stupid it seems to think stuff can make us good parents or help us hold onto our babies, or that owning something like a keyboard will make us good piano players, it’s perhaps good to remember we’ve been trained all our lives to be this way. In our lifetimes we are exposed to countless advertising messages. Walking down the street you will see items in shop windows, posters on buses, signs at bus stops, all linking in our minds that stuff = solutions. We can hardly blame ourselves when the message sinks in and we find that when we want time to ourselves, we attempt to solve it by getting the kids a toy so they’ll play quietly and we can get some work done. Or that if I buy the muffin tin, I’ll inevitably start baking homemade muffins to take to work. (This has literally happened once in the five years I’ve owned it.)
At the root of this is being content with who we are, right now, this millisecond. Then being aware of the motivation behind acquiring stuff. The urge to use stuff as a solution still happens to me, but the more I’ve decluttered and examined what the stuff represents, the better I am at asking, “But why do I want X?” And then finding a better solution to the need than a physical thing.