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.
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?