On this Easter morning, I am grateful. Grateful for all I have, and all I am about to lose.
Why? I am downsizing my belongings. I am overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I have collected over the years. By dealing with each item, one at a time, and eliminating excess, I have a new understanding of what it means to find true peace.
Owning too many material things is the antithesis of that.
Ask yourself this question: What do I want in life?
What “real” answer came into your head? A new car, a bigger home, new clothes, granite countertops?
If you answered, “world peace,” you get bonus points. That is not a usual response. Most people define their success…indeed, their very existence, by what objects they have: what home they live in, what car they drive, what sports or activities their children are involved in, what kind of lifestyle they lead. Some people are fortunate to earn a high income. Many wealthy people have “staff” of some kind to manage their belongings. They pay someone to clean up after them, put things away, keep their home managed, efficient, and perpetually neat. There is nothing wrong with that.
The average person living in America today does not have “staff”, yet still we feel the need to indulge ourselves on shopping sprees, collect things that are given away, and keep things that have sentimental meaning, even if it is an item no longer needed or wanted. It is too easy to acquire merchandise these days. If you don’t feel like leaving the house, you can even shop online or by phone. There are unending ways to acquire ‘junk’…useless belongings that are unnecessary to the basic function of daily living.
Ownership equals responsibility. Every single thing you own, is yours to pass on to others, throw out, sell, remove, and care for. If you add up all the things you own, you will begin to see that managing your belongings can take an enormous amount of time and effort, especially if left unattended for too long. The piles keep growing.
Some people are hoarders, which is ownership gone awry. I have a friend who is a true hoarder, like the ones you see on reality television shows. She buys mail order goods often, even though she has a low income and her home is literally stacked to the ceiling with furniture, mail, catalogs, clothes, cookware, and every conceivable knickknack you can imagine. She has several rooms in her home she cannot access. She is in constant fear of being ‘found out’ by her HOA. I have helped her “clean” a couple of times. The first time, it required a full day to make a path to her front door so she could get her mail without having to climb over things. After much effort, we managed to create a sitting space in a small section of her living room. We created an empty table space, and five places to sit. Her decorative pillows looked nice on the couch, and she could walk for the first time in years from that spot to the kitchen and front door on the opposite end of her home after our long day of work. We tossed several bags of junk, and she had to assess every item and mull over the decision to let her belongings go, even though the majority of what we threw away was what most people would consider trash. The hardest thing for her to part with, ironically, were her piles and piles of old shopping catalogs, even though they were still coming daily into her mailbox.
The next time I went to her home…you guessed it. That pathway was gone. The couch had disappeared under clothes and towels and linens. The table had more piles of magazines and books and papers precariously stacked on top of it. All that work we had done hadn’t even lasted a couple of weeks.
The reason our big clean up didn’t stick is that we had attempted to clean without addressing her emotional issues as to why she felt she needed all that stuff around her to feel secure. It was too big of an issue for a helpful friend to tackle. Though disappointed, I realized: This way of life, being unable to move in her own home because of the sheer weight of her belongings, was her “daily normal.” She was used to walking not on the floor, but across her stuff. Fixing her front room with a Band-aid cleaning job did not solve anything.
You probably aren’t a hoarder, and my hoarder story may sound drastic to you. Where are you on the Ownership Scale? Do you own so many belongings that you spend endless amounts of time looking for lost things, and buying things you know you already own because you can’t find that one thing you need, so you replace it with a new one? Do you find yourself dealing with unorganized drawers, closets, and garages? How frustrated are you by your daily grind? Do you pay for storage each month? Are the things you own in your way? Are your countertops and table tops cluttered? Do you feel joyous or depressed by your surroundings?
Let’s face it. There are some amazing, beautiful things out there in this world. Trinkets, collectibles, everything you can imagine in any style you like, and all at your fingertips for the purchase! I have not always owned a lot of stuff, but I have always owned more stuff than I can easily manage. I downsized considerably when I moved from a small cabin in northern California back to my widowed mother’s home with two small children after my divorce. I moved into a single bedroom with both kids. My mom’s house was full of her own things and our family’s 25-plus years of belongings that we had collected during the time we had all had lived in the home. I moved most of my stuff that didn’t fit in our bedroom into my mom’s overcrowded garage, where many of my things were eventually destroyed by dust, time, and once, a winter rat invasion. I held on to everything I thought was valuable due to my poverty consciousness: as a newly single parent with no child support, I felt poor so kept ‘things’ to sell. I began earning money by having yard sales. I started taking in other people’s stuff, like the time my ex-husband had three elderly relatives pass away within a few months of each other. The family asked me if I wanted to come clear out the aunts’ leftover belongings to sell, since they knew I could make a few dollars off of it. I brought home carloads of boxes of very well maintained, unusual and vintage items and started two small “stuff-selling” businesses I called Grandma’s Attic and Phoenix Furniture. Soon abandoned chairs on the side of the road became art projects, and the collectibles I received from the deceased aunts were sold one trinket at a time. In my numerous attempts to make space in our Southern California garage, I noticed that half of the stuff I was dealing with belonged to my parents, my brother, and even friends who lived in apartments and needed storage space. I could never get on top of the sea of belongings that overwhelmed our home. While I am grateful I was able to make a partial income from these ‘things’ that stayed in our garage, the amount of work it took to clean, maintain, store, set up, assemble, advertise, and break it all down and start over again was intense. I was constantly dealing with these objects that were not even originally mine. Meanwhile, inside the house, my kids would bring home new toys, homework papers, art projects, sporting equipment, and clothes. My son moved into his own room (that I had to clear out: more stuff!). Then we purchased more stuff: a new bed, bedding, and “boy decor” for his room. The piles in the garage for yard sales grew as more items entered the house. Every six months I did a major clean out, had a yard sale, and called the charity truck, yet I kept too many nice things, thinking I could sell them at the next sale. It was a never ending tide of ‘things to be reckoned with.’ Even without the side businesses or yard sales, this clogging up of our lives by owning too many belongings is a pattern I see many Americans facing as they go about their daily living routine. See for yourself: Count how many new (or “new to you”) objects come through your door each week. You are responsible for these things that end up in your home. If you look at each item as a responsibility, you will soon be able to allow yourself to easily part with things that do not bring you joy.
One reason people own too much stuff is due to environmental guilt. There are many people, myself included, who recycle everything, feel guilty throwing things away, and hold on to things ‘just in case’ the object is needed in the future. Environmental guilt causes individuals to hang on to things like left over wood and other materials from home improvement projects, boxes, containers, Styrofoam products, old tools, and things like old bedding (to use for the dog or the next household project), and we junkers have a very difficult time passing up furniture in the dumpster that could be fixed, painted, and given new life. The word for this trash-to-treasure process is called “upcycling,” and it is quite satisfying to grab something from the garbage heap in one’s neighborhood and save it from the landfill. While our satisfaction at helping the planet is great, the fact is now the junk collector owns yet another piece of furniture that is stacked on the ever increasing ‘to do’ list. When I started Phoenix Furniture when my kids were toddlers, I was pretty good at finding time for the projects, cleaning the objects, painting and fixing them up, and reselling them for upward of $100, for an item I acquired free! The process was addicting. I got a regular job when the kids were in elementary school and started working outside my home most days, and the upcycling projects fell by the wayside, but the furniture kept coming in. I started having yard sales again (after a busy work week, which was exhausting) to offload the excess stuff I never got around to painting. I was trapped in a vicious cycle of wanting to save more stuff from the landfill, wanting to create art from those pieces, never finding time, and selling them for just a few dollars to make room in the garage, and it happened over and over again. What a waste of time and effort and space…if I just hadn’t gotten the thing out of the dumpster or accepted it from a friend, I wouldn’t have had to put any thought toward it at all!
We can get in the way of our own progress, even if our intentions are for the greater good of the planet. We need to learn to let go of the responsibility of ownership and not collect everything that is offered to us, whether it is that cute side table luring us to the side of the road, or a comfy old chair gifted to us by a well-intentioned loved one.
My son, now an adult, recently moved out of our family home and I took over his old room as a staging area to deal with, you guessed it, stuff. Lots of stuff. I took a good hard look at the room I now share with my life partner. He travels for work and lives in another state part time. When he recently left town for a job, I cleared everything out of our shared room. We are both rock collectors, and one huge basket had nothing but rocks in it! Even though we both love the rocks we collect, I decided those could go live outside. I looked at every trinket, piece of clothing, piece of furniture, and made hard decisions. These things were crowding us, not bringing us happiness. I took everything out of the room, and then loaded back in only what I thought was useful, beautiful, and worthy of staying. The transformation is incredible. The room now feels spacious and airy. The weight of all those belongings is gone. I kept only clothes and shoes I actually wear, and have room to hang everything in my closet instead of dealing with bags of clothes that were difficult to go through. Removing two shelving units freed the room, which surprised me. I thought that extra shelving would help us gain more space because shelves are for storage. I realized the shelves were just a catchall place for more stuff, and were filled with items that could be stored in other places in the home.
I pulled five large trash bags of belongings out of our small room that we share with two birds in large cages and a young cat. Most of these things that we think are essential are just the detritus that one collects here and there…a cool little bag or two, a jeweled box, a funky lamp, tools, pens and paper and desk accessories, junk collecting finds, and other knickknacks, including a lot of hanging mobiles, decorative items, and mini-posters and postcards that I kept because I enjoyed looking at them, but I now see that they are just ‘eye clutter’. I even put pretty but plain material over the murals I painted years ago on the walls to soften the look of the room and make it appear bigger and brighter. I still have the chore ahead of me to sit down and go through those bags of belongings I removed from the room and make a decision about every single item. I am willing to let go of most of it. The change in our personal space is substantial, and it made me have a clear vision regarding my personal spiritual path. I decided that in the next 5 years, I want to try to whittle down my ownership, my responsibility for things, to 100 items.
THE 100 ITEM CHALLENGE
Ancient writings teach us that Jesus had few belongings and went forth on his life journey trusting that he would be provided for. I believe if you allow things to come to you, they will, regardless of what the thing is. It is when we become needy and desperate that the things we think we need avoid our grasp. That is the basic premise of the Law of Attraction, and I believe there is no lack in the universe, and everything is available and accessible as needed.
Rather than owning a lot of items, the freedom I will gain when I am not bogged down by stuff will bring me more peace in my life, I will be able to easily maintain my living space, and learn to not keep extra things ‘just in case. ’ That is a huge goal for me. I am not there yet except in theory, but downsizing is a good way to get a fresh start. I see myself living a tiny home and living a traveling RV lifestyle in the not-so-distant future, as I travel a lot already with my partner, and so having less will give us more space.
“Acquire no more here than what is absolutely necessary,” is advice from The Shepherd of Hermas. That ideal makes sense in my mind. I have lived simply before: once I lived in a tent on an island at a Girl Scout camp during the summer months, working as a lifeguard. I have lived in a tiny cabin in the redwoods with no running water or electricity. I even have spent quite a bit of time traveling in a schoolbus-turned-RV. So it is not too farfetched that my goal is to own only 100 things, slowly eliminating, evaluating, and deciding what is most important to me as I fine tune the process of owning less. When I say 100 items, I don’t mean exactly 100, or else! It is not a contest, but a goal. For example, I will count my tool bag as one item even if it holds twenty tools, because I don’t desire to wrestle with a decision-making crisis while deciding between owning the wire cutters or the flat-head screwdriver.
At first, 100 items may seem like a big number, but when you realize how much you can pack just for a long weekend trip, what you load into the car trunk is probably close to 100 things. It will be crucial to make sure that what I own has a purpose and a place, brings me joy, and is something that makes me feel good about its presence in my life. The minimalist lifestyle is a huge change for me, but one I am excited to embrace.
Downsizing is smart. It is good for the environment. The “tiny house” movement is huge right now, partially because it is less expensive to own a tiny home and far less work, but also because of the freedom it provides the owners. Even if you live in a larger home, and plan to stay in it for awhile due to family obligations, or work, or because you are happy there, take a good hard look around you. What lives in your closets? Do you use or need everything there? Do you like or use everything you own? How many items are you responsible for in your life right now? Ask yourself, why do you make the choice to keep certain things…like that ugly dishtowel set you won at a charity raffle, or the fancy coffee maker you never use? If we are going to own things, we should want them, appreciate them, and if we don’t, re-home them to charity organizations, or have a yard sale, create a Craigslist ad, or give them away on an online site like Freecycle. You do not have to be responsible for any non-living item you don’t want to own. That includes homes, cars, sweaters, shoes, accessories, tools, inherited objects, and knickknacks.
Evaluate your living situation today. Pay attention to what stuff is in your life, keep only what brings you joy, and rid yourself of the burden of the rest of it, because life is short and you deserve to feel free and relaxed when you are in your own home, not burdened by clutter and disorganization. Trust the universe! Our basic human survival needs are food, water, shelter, and clothing. Everything else is just icing on the cake, and maybe it is time for your own well-being to put yourself on a 100 item diet and see if your life improves.