12.10.2010

THE NEW DHARMA: HOW TO BREAK THE STUFF CYCLE


I have started to think that, as with the fat on our bodies, we have “set points” for stuff. No matter how hard we work to shed things, we have levels to which we inevitably revert. I’ll purge my books, but then become uneasy about the loss; a few months go by and, mysteriously, as if they have come in on a flood tide, new books have taken their place. No matter how much stuff I lose, within months, if not sooner, I'm back up to the same visual density. Which is to say, clutter. Still, it doesn't hurt to keep trying. We have to break the Stuff Cycle.

Getting rid of things can be difficult, and very emotional. The Buddhists have it right: attachment causes suffering. However, no matter which way you spin the Tao, attachment is inevitable. When I sold my house in the suburbs of New York, I had to do a massive purge. I describe this process in my book, Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas, and Found Happiness. I can assure you that I did much sorting through a lifetime of stuff while wearing my pajamas, and revisited wonderful memories. Our stuff--rather than our homes, which we ditch with unseemly speed these days--carries our histories.

I developed one technique that may--okay, definitely does--irritate my sister, but it helped me. I gave her some of the things I liked best, furniture, a couple of pieces of art, with the proviso that I could have them back should I ever need them. Of course this is deeply annoying. But it gave me the illusion that I wasn’t committing to loss. Of course, I haven't exactly tried prying anything out of her house--yet.

My books gave me lots of trouble, and I won't go into that here as I discuss it in Slow Love. Suffice it to say that I'm going to be forced to do another purge soon. My attachment to books has to do with their representing the person I hope I will someday be: one who reads biographies of writers, or philosophical treatises, or textbooks about cosmology. It is hard to give up on the dreams of your best self. So go easy on the books.

There are many ways to break the Stuff Cycle that I didn't investigate in Slow Love; I offer them here as a great way to focus the mind afflicted with Seasonal Affective Disorder. The best one, of course, is not to set foot into a store to begin with. However, where would we get our upper body workouts?

Winter is a time in which we are given the gift of too many dark hours to stare into the depths of closets. Well, if it isn't the closet, it's your soul; pick your poison. I'm going with the pantry.

First thing to understand: one reason it is hard to stick a spoke into the Stuff Cycle is perceived obsolescence. We think something is no longer worth keeping--this is especially true of things like shoes, and other fashion items--becaues they're no longer in style, even though they may be perfectly functional. Then we want to replace it. Same goes with stuff around the house. We get used to our things--and sometimes we stop seeing them altogether--or they feel old, rather than beloved. We forget why we fell in love with them in the first place. My suggestion for resisting perceived obsolescence is to pack things away into a box, shelve them, and don't look for a year. You'll be delighted to find them again, as if you had bought new things. Much cheaper.

But the point of this exercise is shedding. Others will be grateful to have your things; you will be grateful to have breathing room. So...

Children's things: I gave both my sons the option of keeping what they wanted. Then I kept what I wanted for the grandchildren I will someday have, I hope. They weren’t interested in their baby toys--but I was. I bought a large Rubbermaid crate with a lid, cleaned off a few of the toys that were my favorites, sorted through the books we loved best, washed a couple of stuffed animals, and packed these into their new home, with apologies for the tight fit, the airlessness, and a long slumber ahead. I peek in from time to time, and still catch whiffs of milky baby fragrance.

Bins: All philosophers know that bins are the key to a happy life. Everything has its place, even if you have to create a place for it. Some call these bins Ontology, or Existentialism. Others call them Rubbermaid. Entire magazines are devoted to issues of storage, but I will save you the cost of subscriptions. Here's  the bottom line: Storage bins are the only way to bring order to chaos.

The only problem is all the plastic the bins are made of--do they contain BPA? I have no idea. But I'll write about this later. Am I becoming paranoid about plastics?

Clothing: If you haven't worn it--because it hasn't fit for years, or is inappropriate (i.e. too short, too sweet)--send it on to someone who will enjoy it. Do not get rid of items that you adore and have worn to a nub, the comfort clothes. They will get rid of themselves; meantime, they are a grownup's security blankets. Do start wearing the things you have been saving up for special occasions, because this is the time of life when all occasions are special. It is just the same with the "good" china.


Setting the Table: Hone your style. Your china should all be the good stuff. If it isn't, and you're avoiding it, give it away. If it is, use it. By this time in your life, you ought to know your entertaining style. Do you love throwing dinner parties? If so, do not get rid of your multiples; even if you downsize on square footage, you're probably not downsizing your list of friends. You're just going to be crowding all of them around a smaller table, in a smaller room. (And you'll probably want to upsize after you've tried that a few times.)

Bathroom: This is a place where many of us manifest Hoarding Disorder. Be ruthless. If you have twenty bottles of perfume I can promise you eighteen of them smell musty. You do not need ten skin creams; nine of them are growing bacteria. Same with toothbrushes, and ratty hairbrushes. All the mismatched linens you haven't had the heart to throw away? Give away, unless they're frayed; in that case, cut the sheets into rags. No more paper towels ever. When forest green becomes Eau de Polluted Nile, its time to throw in the towel. And learn the lesson: do not horde stuff. Just because advertisers want you to feel you need endless unguents, doesn't mean it is a good idea.

Kitchen: Clean out ruthlessly. Get rid of all the cracked, stained, ruined, chipped, dented, pots and pans, and especially those with the non-stick surfaces that we now know are bad for your health. You don't need five whisks. You don't need six can openers. You don't need a single weird implement whose purpose you do not immediately recognize. Someone else will want them.

Vases, and etc.: I know, I've done it too. But you no longer need to keep every glass vase that was ever delivered to your house. Take them all back to the florist, and ask for a few roses in return. The shorter cylinders, by the way, might be perfect for food storage, with a shower cap for a lid.

Furniture: This is a tough one. If you are moving, make floor plans, and keep what fits. If you haven't found your new house yet, consider storage. I say this because if you love the coffee table you finally found after years of searching, you are going to be unhappy when you find your new house after months of searching, and have to buy new furniture. That's a costly, and exhausting, enterprise.

Forget resale: sofas are like cars. The moment you haul them home, they lose value. Frankly, there are days when everything is like cars: pianos, chandeliers, armchairs, art, and on very bad days... men. creatures of the male or female persuasion (that better?).


men. [Yes, that was grumpy of me. What, I have to be a saint? Tough. Like I said, on bad days. Perhaps they lose value because of planned obsolescence? BTW I've never used that cross-out option before, I love it, I must say...]

The only thing not like a car is yourself. The more you drive over the highway of life, the more you gain in value. Therefore, take good care not to carry too much baggage. We don't want to wear out the shock absorbers, do we?

46 comments:

Madgew said...

All one has to do is clean out a parents home when they become ill or die. It makes a minimalist out of anyone. Also, a trip to India did it for me. I purge all the time and am getting to the place were everything has a purpose and I use it or it is given away. No more collections, no more stuff just because I like it. My kids won't when I die just as I don't like my parents stuff as they die or get too ill to enjoy their stuff anymore. As I age the thought of cleaning my Mom's house when she dies makes me clean up mine all the time so my kids don't have to.

lequincampe said...

Life's too short to read ADA, OR ARDOR.

jill said...

Dominique,
Can I ask you what kind of camera you use? Your photos are wonderfully real meaning I feel that I'm seeing exactly what you are seeing. The colors are right on. You've inspired me to pick up a camera; but which one?

Bruce Barone said...

When I moved in with my fiance (out of a large loft space and into a ranch home) it required that I rid myself of furniture, clothes, and books. The books were the hardest to let go. And sometimes, I have turned around in my office, and looked for a book on the bookcase only to discover it is not there. That's okay. Many were rather old--from college! And my thinking remains I can always buy new books. Ultimately, the whole experience of "letting go" was rather liberating and joyful.

Dominique said...

How funny, ADA was just at the top of my recent giveaway pile. One of the few books I've ever met in which I could not even make a dent...I use a simple canon point and shoot--PowerShot Sd 1200 IS...

My parents are definitely setting us up for weeks of clean up...I'm resigned to my fate.

And here's to liberating and joyful!

david terry said...

Dear Ms. Browning,

Having just read "The moment you haul them home, they lose value. Frankly, there are days when everything is like cars: pianos, chandeliers, armchairs, art, and men."

My first consideration is to recall that you are (as anyone with half a lick of sense or the most minimal degree of experience in the business) busying yourself with "re-branding" yourself. Good for you.

While you're at that business (and do, please, feel quite free to disregard my advice), you might do well not do so by writing as though you were working for Salon.com's self-imposed,pink-ghetto, E-Z-chainjerking "Broadsheet" section.

Perhaps your aim IS to cultivate some sort of "woman's" blog ( I distinctly recall being amused by that that recent, silly reponse which giddily delcared that you ought to start having "Weekend retreats...a Gathering of The Women!!!!"....and I quote).

I'll assume you know your business (I mean that quite literally, and there's a good reason you took over Anna Wintour's job)) better than I do.

In any case, I read your comment about "men" and thought that you might have done yourself a favor by writing "dates", "romances", or any number of non-gendered variations that didn't necessarily entail some self-congratulatory, shared eyerolling over "men" and their ways...

Apparently, I should do my own self a favor, recognize that this is a "WOMYNS" blog and save myself some momentary irritation.

quite sincerely,

David Terry
www.davidterryart.com

Anonymous said...

I agree that books are the hardest. I found an organization that accepts all donations and gives books away for free. Free to anyone, as many as you want. It is where I take magazines I'm done with or never read, books that were mistakes and will never get read, books I've outgrown. Before I found this place, I kept buying more bookcases. Now I limit myself to four six foot tall bookcases. When things get messy, I go through each shelf to see if I am still interested in what's there.

I admit, there are some books I just love to look at so they will remain until, well, until.

Karena said...

Dominique an excellent time of the year for this post. Books are the hardest,however I have given away so many over the years.

With clothing, if one thing comes in, something must go. Goodwill will happily take designer fashions with shoulder pads a bit too wide!

xoxo
Karena
Art by Karena

Ginger said...

... having read all your books, this was an additional bonus. Books - I check out the newest cookbook at the library - sometimes even having the library order it - and if I really think I will use the book, I will buy it; if not, can always put the book on hold again at the library.

Cheryl said...

Todays post touches me. I have been downsizing for awhile now. My husband's unexpected illness made me realize that there is no reason to wait to use the good china. We are using that, along with the crystal and the silver. It is a joy.
Closets are being emptied. There is a peace that comes with all of this.
Thank you for you advise and your lovely blog.
PS We are "neighbors"

Kat Gordon said...

Extra-wonderful post and that says a lot, Dominique, as you always set the bar high. My husband and I are at odds about the keeping of stuff, immortalized for our friends with the story of me one day finding my wedding dress stuffed into the garbage can. Over the years, I have inched closer to his philosophy of minimalism with the exception of books. A house without books is like a house without air or music.

Debbie Happy Maker said...

This is great, "The more you drive over the highway of life, the more you gain in value." I shall remember that.

Stuff isn't what is important it is the memories of life that you keep in your heart.

I do have to say I have given away a few books that I wish I had back. Hey, we all do things we wish we wouldn't have, but that is life too, so I just chuckle and hope someone else is enjoying those books.
Have a great day,
Debbie

Joyce said...

What a great post and comments Dominique, I'm going to read it and then read it again, to me it is very uplifting, and it is absolutely right on. Does it getting dark 5 ever get to you, it does me. I just had to talk about it. Hugs, Joyce

mary said...

I'm always in a state of letting go, it seems. I have so many books that I can't access because they are in storage, but giving them away...Ouch. That said, I only keep what I really need (or at least what I think I need). And when it comes time to move, boy can I travel light. (I think that David was a bit harsh today)
Have a super Sunday.

William said...

Oh great, couldn't you have posted this last week BEFORE I special ordered my William & Kate Royal Wedding Commemorative Tea Towels from Bed, Bath & Beyond?

Naturally Carol said...

I think I have a different way of looking at this subject than you. I see myself as a conduit. I am interested in meeting the needs of others, after all we are all in this life together. Things come my way and I buy things as well. Sometimes things that come my way I don't really need or want..so I pray for the right person or organisation to pass them on to. Other things I find useful or love for a season and then someone needs or wants them more than I do and I can then let them go. Some things I love to make, knowing they are not for me, sometimes I have a person in mind sometimes not and so keep my eyes and ears open for a person to give to. It is a lot of fun to pass things on and seeing needs met and people enjoy what is given to them. Love to give and love to receive...a beautiful balance in life.

SweetRetreat said...

What timely advice as I try to keep a laser focus on my efforts to minimize. So glad to know that the mysterious reappearance of clutter not just happening in my house.

I now intend to take your ''hone your style" phrase as a mantra. It works with all sorts of clutter.

Books are difficult and last on my list.

Thank you for the much-needed push.

Thea said...

having gone thru a premature cleanout four years ago, what i kept has been in a 10x15 storage locker and since i only kept what i would absolutely need to furnish my smaller next home, my heart pings for my 'stuff'. however, having lost my 'life' 4 years ago, i feel lighter and i realize i have never felt as free as now. and after knowing myself as a wife and mother (*spouse/parent in honor of david terry) for so long, i'm now just me, unemcumbered, and it's horrible and beautiful at the same time. haven't gotten my new home yet, not sure if i want the responsibility. and i wonder what my children will do with my already concise and easy to dispose of stuff. I only kept the books i loved or thought would be valuable (first editions) or if our world devolved into a farienheit 451 type of place and people secretly needed some stash. (one never knows...) lol now, if only the chaos that is my mind i could crate up!! has anyone noticed how the inside of one's pocketbook (*dt: wallet, briefcase, backpack) is usually a reflection of one's state of mind?

david terry said...

Dear "Thea",

I don't know why there'd be any particular need for you to substitute "spouse/parent" for "wife and mother". You certainly wouldn't need to do so "in honor" of me.

My initial response scarcely called for some silly "gender neutral" writing. In fact, it didn't do so at all.

I would, though, take notice if you said (in a lazily self-congratulatory and generalizing fashion) that wives and mothers were worth about half as much as they cost, once you "hauled" them back to your house.

But you didn't speak of wives and mothers in that way. So, don't worry yourself.

Ms. Browning did, however, say that "men" are like any number of household items....basically?....really not worth the time or expense once you've "hauled" (and I quote) them home.

I think I have a very good idea of what would happen if I wrote (in these responses...say?) "The moment you haul them home, they lose value. Frankly, there are days when everything is like cars: pianos, chandeliers, armchairs, art, and women".

????....reallly???....

I read that remark of Ms. Browning's (whose work I've admired a great deal over the years) and immediately recalled this passage from Alice Thomas Ellis's (google her, if you don't know of her) very funny&good novel "Fairy Tale":

"Eloise's mother had contrived, perhaps inadvertently, to raise her to a condition where she thought of men as, in previous times, men, it was said, had thought of women: largely brainless and good for only one thing"

And THAT would be my point.

Bemusedly,

David Terry
www.davidterryart.com

Dominique said...

You're so right. I was feeling grumpy. I suppose I will have to edit the offending potshot. LOVE Eloise's mother comment. And sorry to have offended.

casacara said...

Seasonal Acquisitive Disorder, more like. I moved recently (downsized again, for the second time in four years) and this time have remembered to say "No gifts!" when I invite someone over to see my new place. I've been purging & purging & purging...got it down to a science. The last thing I need is for friends to bring in more stuff. I so agree with Madgew (1st comment) on how cleaning out our parents' homes after their deaths, and seeing their lovingly acquired things picked through at a yard sale, is enough to give one serious pause about collections. I know that was a turning point for me.

Cristina said...

...I wish I had a tenth of your positive attitude and the same beaming (and just slightly ironical) look at life.

William said...

No, Dominique, the change to "creatures of the male and female persuasion" as the result of an offended commenter is not "better". You write a blog, which to make it interesting and relevant, should be true and honest - most important, in its portrayal of you since it is your blog. By stating that to you "men" lose value when you "haul them home" was written by you as a true and honest statement and it should stand. If it drives someone away because they are offended or find it to not be sufficiently politically-correct or think it makes it sound like a chicks blog, then so be it. Is that not what blogs are all about? It's fine for a reader to be offended and comment as so - but for you to change what you wrote as a result to appease them is not. I liked that guy's comment pointing out that he was offended by the inclusion of "men" in your list - it was in interesting take. But for you to change the text of your post as a result? I mean. come on. True and honest is what makes blogs interesting and readable - changing "men" to "creatures of the male and female persuasion" - really? Change it back or I will be offended. :)

c said...

hmm, sorry D .. not better. I'm with William - your thoughts, your views, your choice of words in a particular moment, are YOU. (by that I mean all of us, not you DB specifically).

And we read your (DB) posts for a myriad reasons, but I suspect most of us do so because you give voice to many of our own thoughts and views.

As for purging ... maybe next year??? ;-)

Thea said...

i like all my men imaginary and i suspect they feel the same

William said...

D.-

LOL LOL LOL - I just noticed the strikethrough - ok now that cracked me up. Don't get so flummoxed, I was only joking!! I did happen to catch the deleted comment from earlier before you deleted it, well no comment on that one.

OK I'm still laughing at the strikethrough - it might be my second glass of wine. :)

Streams Full of Stars said...

Always, you touch chords in all of us, as we can see by the varied responses.
Re. books..."It is hard to give up on the dreams of your best self." Perfect! While everything you say about shedding is true, it does seem so very difficult to give up our books - they are a way of expressing the ideas, thoughts and poetry we cherish most - our love of words and the joy we take in them - something we are always eager to share. Giving them away seems like taking an eraser to the pages of our lives. Perhaps this is a task for January - if ever?
About simplicity, what do you think of the Tate's newest tree? Although I love glitz, this seems like an appropriate homage to nature's gracefulness...
http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/12/tate-christmas-tree.phpAs

William said...

Dominique,

Just checking in to see if you are OK tonight with all these crazy comments challenging your blog content. I hope so. Seriously, don't take this stuff (aka blog comments) well, seriously. From me, anyway, it's all meant in great fun. You can change stuff if you want or then change it back if you want, or whatever. You definitely seem like a fun girl (aka creature the female persuasion) and I truly hope you are having fun with all of this. Can we get back to discussing important things like Thermoplastic Polymer nativity scenes from Walmart>>

Anonymous said...

David Terry and William,
Please note: this is in fact a woman's blog. Would you really have Dominique reshape her personality, or change her voice, to suit your values? As a woman reader I found her comment delightfully reassuring. All women have these bad days she alludes to because life is still desperately unfair for women. David, you assume Dominique is distressed about a date or romance, but women complain to each other about men for many reasons that have nothing to do with romance. And we will continue to need to do so until we earn more than 75% of what men do and until violence against women is a distant memory rather than a commonplace. David and William, if you reread your comments you will see that both contain controlling language. William said he was joking, but his second message is also phrased (perhaps unintentionally) as a direction: "Don't get so flummoxed." The tone of these messages saddens me. Dominique's initial remark reads as heartfelt. And no wonder: it is her observation, her experience, her voice. Hers.

Tami said...

Im a nursing student and what little free time I have I spend reading so if you are looking for a good home for your purged books I know just the place: My lovely little bookcases in southern ohio! :)

Dominique said...

I love all the comments,which make me feel as though I were at a rollicking cocktail party. I never mind feeling flummoxed, and often am flummoxed (what a fantastic word, really, just saying it unhinges me). Somehow, out of all the flapping around, comes clarity, if momentary. The Very Rev Terry is very revered around here and William always grounds things, if only in polymer. Many thanks for that bracing feminist stance, Anonymous. As we used to say, Right on. Everyone. And thank you.

William said...

D-

Always glad to help out with the polymer grounding and continuing along that path....'Anonymous Feminist' sounds like a vintage man-hater of the first order - not that there is anything wrong with that. Those staunch feminist man-haters are a dying breed - gotta love 'em but rule #1 is stay away from them at parties.

By the way, "Rollicking cocktail party" - I like that comparison and, well, it must be 5pm somewhere in the world! Hiccup.

The Foster Lady said...

First of all, I loved your book and I love your blog...that's for starters.

Now, about the STUFF. I'm 63 now and have realized that I don't need STUFF to make me happy. But someone with a grandchild or two may love the children's books that I have. I gave them all to such a person via the Craigslist Free section. It felt soooooooo great to think that someone with 5grandkids would be reading those
very nice Christmas books! It was a win-win, all the way around.

Warren said...

My new puppy has solved a lot of the keep/toss issues by chewing. She is great on card board / egg cartons, my pile of cook books, torn pages from NYT (does this count as recycling?). She's worked her way around to my daughter's new math book which I am hoping the school overlooks.
As for men, well, speaking as one, I came across a great quote about women sent to me on one of those cloyingly cute auto-powerpoints we get sent: "Women and cats can do as they please; men and dogs have to accept it."
Yours sounds like a serious post. I hope you do not lose your ability to laugh at yourself. We are are own best joke.

david terry said...

As for lessons learned during this go-round? My first consideration (in regard to what I wrote previously and sincerely) is that I probably need to recall my grandmother's advice.....no need to start giving away-for-free what you were underpaid to do years ago....

And THAT isn't meant to seem cryptic or "clever".

sincerely,

David Terry
www.davidterryart.com

The Down East Dilettante said...

I'm late to this party, but just wanted to add 'amen'. As an Antiques dealer, i spend a lot of time refereeing the division and disposal of other people's possessions. Bottom line: there's a limit to how much one needs, and it's better to have beauty pass through one's life than to be flattened by it...

Dorine Moore said...

I love the well-written comments by David Terry. I adore the acknoledgment by Dominique on December 11th. But setting aside this little side path, I truly appreciate the Slow Love that Dominique brings into my life through this blog. Clearing my space of so many things that I can't seem to find the time, nor the will, to go through, would be healing and uplifting. Thanks for the encouragement to do so.

Cindy said...

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Cindy
www.gofastek.com

leeshink said...

spot on with this write-up, i like the way you discuss the things. i'm impressed, i must say. i'll probably be back again to read more. thanks for sharing this with us.

Lee Shin
www.trendone.net

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