Monday, April 18, 2011

On Clutter, Spring Cleaning & Letting Go

It's Spring, and for lots of folks, that inspires a sense of renewal about life, nature, and even our homes. I have no idea where the tradition of Spring Cleaning originated (admittedly, I did actually look it up on Wikipedia). However, I understand its appeal: out with the old junk and things you don't need anymore, then clear out the dust and open the windows to let the fresh air and (blessedly returned) sunshine flood in! I've always wanted to be someone who has a clean—and, more importantly, relatively tidy—place to live. Reaching that goal has become a huge learning and new habit-making process for me and Jaymz, and it's not without its challenges.

Here's the thing...I have a confession to make: I'm a hoarder. I don't mean that I've been diagnosed clinically with anything that requires professional treatment. I don't mean that I should be featured on that awful reality show (which I believe exploits people who really need help). What I mean is: I hold on to things that have no real value. Things that should not be kept because they are broken and will never be fixed. Things that I will never use again but can't bear to get rid of because they're not broken or useless. I have trouble throwing things out (or recycling, donating, freecycle-ing, giving away, etc.) because I have this fear that some day, it will magically become useful again.

I'll give you an example: I moved a whole bag of unopened mail from my mom's house in Pennsylvania to my college five hours away, then to Oregon. (I hate opening mail, but that's a whole 'nother problem.) Then, I moved it to our second apartment, where I finally went through it before we moved to our third place (so this is like...six years or so later). Surprise, surprise...I discovered that it was all useless when I finally opened (and ultimately recycled) it. Some of it would have, however, been useful to me at the time—had I bothered to go through it then—but the moment had passed.

When I was growing up, my dad had a thing he used to say when we were cleaning my room together: "When in doubt, throw it out!" I always found this way too difficult, as I find myself emotionally attached to possessions in a way that I'm not sure is totally healthy.[1] I guess that's really the heart of it for me: not only am I emotionally attached to my stuff, but I have this innate desire to not let anything go to waste.

It's something I don't want to stop striving for: reducing my carbon footprint. In this case, reducing both my consumption (purchases) and more importantly, the amount of waste my family produces that cannot be recycled, re-purposed, or composted. At the same time, not only do I not want to be attached to my things (which are not valuable to me if they aren't useful in some way), but also I don't want to be wading through a bunch of stuff as I try to go about my day-to-day life.

This brings me to a story: When I was eleven, my parents got divorced. Six months later, it was Christmastime, and it was the first year we would not all be spending it together. My parents each asked me (individually) what I wanted for Christmas, and I told them I needed a new pair of slippers. Christmas Eve came (the designated holiday visitation day with my dad) and I received a shiny new pair of slippers. Then, on Christmas morning (with my mom) I unwrapped a second new pair of slippers. It was such a heartbreaking moment for me when I opened that second pair of slippers. I realized that from then on, I would need to choose certain things to ask for from each parent, since they would not be discussing gifts with each other to prevent me from getting duplicates.

Yep, that's my toe poking through on the right.
Fast forward many years, and believe it or not, I still have one of those pairs of slippers.[2] I wear slippers around the house to provide me with extra traction so I don't fall down ('cause I can be clumsy like that). Well, from all that use (and all those years, for Pete's sake) now my slippers look like that. →

So, it's time for a new pair of slippers. Only, I can't get rid of these old ones. Of course not; they have sentimental value! Nevermind that they're totally dysfunctional as foot-coverings go.

Here's the solution I came up with: I couldn't bring myself to buy a new pair, so I decided I'd make myself a new pair. That way, the new pair is really special (like the old ones were, except without the sad story). I spent my time creating them, they have leather soles, and they're super-comfy and warm, yet breathable. I'm really proud of how they turned out!

And still (I know you know where this is going) I haven't thrown out the old pair yet. It's too hard! What if they suddenly become useful again someday!?

If it was just one pair of useless slippers, that would be one thing. But there are lots of things like this around the house (and it's not just me, my husband is almost as challenged in this area as I am, let me tell you). Out of necessity (read: because Daniel was eating a lot of paper from receipts and mail we had within his reach) we've gotten the majority of the house tidied up. Still, there are bags of (un-filed) papers, boxes of (ill-fitting) clothes and shoes,[3] and a small storage unit filled with things that are probably not even worth the money that we pay each month to house them there.

So, as it seems, Jaymz and I are on a journey of trying to figure out how to keep our home in a peaceful and liveable state (at least most of the time). I'm trying to reduce clutter in the spirit of Spring cleaning, and stop hanging on to things that are no longer useful to me. It's still hard to get rid of things when I think I might somehow be able to use them in the future. It's a balance that I'm working toward, and I'm finding that it's more difficult than others to achieve.

But I keep on trying; I keep on working at it.

Please tell me, fellow eco- and conservationist-minded folks: How do you strike that balance between saving, reusing, and re-purposing things (ad nauseum) and getting rid of things that are really not valuable to you anymore? Do any of you have this same trouble purging that I do? Your thoughts, tips, suggestions, commiseration, etc. are greatly appreciated!

  1. It was also ironic to hear (now that I think about it) coming from the man who won't even recycle a used envelope until he's used the entire back of it for list-making.
  2. Yes, I know you believe it, because I told you I'm emotionally attached to my things, and here I just told you a whole story about the slippers, so you have even more evidence.
  3. Oh, all those beautiful shoes I'll never be able to wear again because my feet got bigger from pregnancy!

"Live a balanced life—learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some."
Robert Fulghum

This post is part of my series on balance, inspired by the October Carnival of Natural Parenting. Without balance, we feel burned out, we lose perspective...we fall down. How do you find balance in your life? What does it mean to you to be in balance? Does it come easily to you or do you have to be more intentional about it?

I'd love to host your guest post for my series on balance! Contact me at anktangle (at) gmail (dot) com if you're interested in participating.


  1. We do recycle, and we also use reusable items whenever we can. But our house is not that big and I am not going to feel bad for trashing, or especially donating, something we don't need. We downsized big time when we bought our house. The big old house we rented hemorrhaged energy (and therefore money), so in our particular case getting rid of 1/3 of what we owned in order to move into a much smaller, more efficient house probably was the most eco-friendly choice. It also makes me happier, more efficient, and a better parent, which is most important to me.

    After all the messes my husband and I have endured together--piles of junk, totally unusable rooms we couldn't walk through, things we cared about ruined or lost in the shuffle--we've grown to love decluttering. We keep a pile going in the corner of the dining room and add stuff to it almost daily as we come across it. Dropping off van loads of stuff at Goodwill and seeing spaces open up in our house feels sooo good.

    Sorry for the long comment. I'm a decluttering nerd!

  2. @Jenny: Please don't be sorry--I really appreciate the long comment! I do find that when the task is complete that it does feel really good. It's just getting there that's the really hard part for me. Your enthusiasm is very inspiring though...I may just have to get rid of some things today. =)

  3. Oh and those slippers you made look great! Did you use upcycled leather? I've thought of making some out of felted wool and an old purse or something.

  4. @Jenny: I bought the (suede) leather soles on sale from a fabric store, actually. They already had the little holes punched in them all the way around, and there's some faux fur stuff on the inside for a bit of cushion. Ever since I finished them, I've been wanting to make another pair. I love your idea of using an old purse instead!

  5. Oh, I really feel you on this one. My husband and I are both like you. And right now we have to pack up our whole house to move. It's ridiculous. More ridiculous is that we haven't really lived very well here because we never did manage to de-clutter. I'm determined to put nearly everything in storage and only take what will fit into the new house. Then go through boxes and get rid of things little by little.
    I have no wisdom for you, sorry. Just keep trying. That's what we're doing.

  6. Thanks @teresa! Your commiseration is actually really helpful. I wish you lots of luck with your upcoming move...moving can be so stressful!

  7. Amy, TOTALLY have the same problem. I am moving at the end of the summer and so right now I'm trying REALLY hard to get rid of stuff, but I have such difficulty letting go. It's getting easier, and becoming somewhat of a spiritual exercise--learning to give to others because I have way more than I need. I also won't be able to take most of this with me, and currently do not have a place to store it when I leave for a year, so I'm trying to at least cut down extremely so that it isn't so much I'll have to store at my relatives' houses...

  8. we recycle and buy used clothing/toys/etc when possible. usually just get a couple pieces of new clothes seasonally.

    i love to try to repurpose things... but my problem is that i end up with a stockpile of things that i have good intentions of repurposing, but don't get to. my other issue is obviously procrastinating!

    p.s. LOVE the new slippers!
    (@curious_kitty on twitter)

  9. This is so interesting, because I was just thinking about/puzzling over this issue, which I believe is common with frugality folks, environmentalists, and ironically, simple-living folks. In our desire to re-use everything to the max, we hold onto junk that basically pollutes our space. A sentimental pair of slippers is one thing, but unopened mail is a great example ...

    And also, like, I can't get rid of these old grody towels and replace them with nice new towels, because the old ones STILL WORK. Even though they have holes in them and ratty fraying edges, they do still DRY your body.

    And I'm always wondering when it's okay for me to throw away the tiny dissolving shreds of hand soap. I hate to see things to to waste!

    I recently did a blog post about Ellen Sandbeck's book Green Housekeeping. ( One thing I really appreciated about her book is that she GETS this about "green"-minded people and her book is accessible to housekeeping underacheivers like myself. She keeps saying, that in order to have a healthy, green house, the flow of stuff OUT of the house has to match the flow INTO the house. And I'm like DUH, that's BRILLIANT! Anyway, check it out, I think you would like it.

  10. For us, the solution is two-fold. Get rid of stuff and buy less.

    I think it's okay to save some things with sentimental value; I still have my baby blanket tucked away on the bottom of the blanket chest like a dirty secret. But for most part, I try to combine sentiment with usefulness. Like: I have my grandmother's and great-grandmother's table linens and I use them for big family dinners and holidays. When my dad died, I put aside some of his clothes, the clothes I remember him wearing, that I couldn't bring myself to throw away, to make a quilt.

  11. @Naomi: I like that idea of thinking of it as a spiritual exercise...I'll have to try out that perspective!

    @Tara: That's definitely part of the problem for me, too: the piles of things I mean to do something with, but don't get to very quickly. And thanks for the compliment on my new slippers! =D

    @Inder-ific: Unlike you, I would buy the new towels...but then still not get rid of the old ones. It's so interesting to hear the nuanced ways that everyone deals with this issue. Thank you for the book recommendation! I'll definitely check it out.

    @Frankie: Your comment reminded me that I need to be more forgiving and patient with myself about this. Thank you.

  12. I used to have the SAME problem! And here is the good news: Once it clicked for me that I could let go of the physical item and only keep the actual memory, it became SO easy! I can not believe some of the things I've let go!

    Here is my suggestion: Pick something that you think might be easier than other things. For instance, perhaps your shoes. They may be useful, to someone else, but I guarantee your feet will not shrink back down a size! (I also lost a collection of shoes through a pregnancy.) Box them all up and put them out of sight. If you don't access that box in ___ amount of time (whatever is comfortable for you ~ 1 week or 3 months, whatever), then you'll deliver the entire box (without opening it) to a donation center.

    I hope you find this helpful, for it is an effort at advocating minimalism at your own pace compassionately. ;-)

  13. Oh, and as for commiseration: I tend to set mail aside to deal with later. I'll get rid of most of the junk (we even have a recycle bin by the mailboxes here!), but I'll keep things to which I intend to attend.

    Fast forward a year later, I still have a box of mail... and another box of mail. And now it is all so out of date that it doesn't really matter anymore, but I can't toss it because there might be something important in there!

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