The big purge, 2011 edition (presenting Mt. Stuff)

I had some free time, over my winter break from school and work. I got down to business, combing through cabinets, drawers and closets to figure out what we can give away or recycle before we move again in a few months. Moving is always a big motivator, for me, in the process of paring down. What’s the point of carrying something 3000 miles with me if I’m not going to use it? And I mean really use it, regularly, not once every three years when I get an urge to make four pies at the same time (see you later, extra pie plates).

I give you the results of my labor. I have dubbed it….Mt. Stuff.

It’s a lot of stuff! These are the questions I asked myself, in deciding what could go.

  1. Do I love this thing?
  2. Enough to cart it around for the rest of my life?
  3. Do I really use it (or wear it)?
  4. Could someone else get more benefit from it that I do?

Most of the time, the answer to the first question is “no,” and I can stop there. But downsizing can be hard. There’s been a sequential process, as we have minified our stuff.

Step 1: Go for the low hanging fruit. It’s entirely painless to part with things we don’t use that we also don’t particularly care about. Especially if they’re a little bit shoddy. Giving away things that still seem nice or useful is a little more challenging, but manageable, so long as they’re going to a good home. Believe me, “it might be useful someday” is a trap. If you’re not using it now, there’s probably a good reason for that. Give the waffle press to someone who will use it now.

Step 2: The gift of uncluttered space. Now the shoes I haven’t worn in three years are gone, and so are the binders from my high school chemistry class. What about the earrings someone gave me? It’s harder to give away a gift. I don’t want to be ungrateful, or hurt anyone’s feelings. Gifts often represent love and positive emotions. Who wants to part ways with that? Don’t give away anything you really love, folks. I have my great aunt’s locket, because I love it and I loved her. It made my project 333 list, so I’ll get to wear it a lot in the next three months. And I have the french press I got for Christmas – I use it every day! But I also had some earrings I didn’t wear…they hurt my ears, but they were beautiful, and I love the person who gave them to me. Over the break, I gave them to a good friend, and today when I got to class and sat down next to her, she was wearing them! They looked great, and I was glad to see they’d found a home with someone who would take them out of the jewelry box every once in a while.

Step 3: Learning the difference between sentiment and stuff. Some of the hardest things to part with are the things I associate them with some wonderful memory or event. I have to remind myself that I’m not giving away the memory. Take the example of wedding memorabilia. My wedding, several years ago, was one of the happiest days of my life. We had a blast, and we still experience all kinds of rosy feelings when we reflect on it. So I saved all the things that remind me of that day. My dress, my veil, the earrings my husband gave me. Our big Quaker wedding certificate, which hangs on our dining room wall. The scrapbook I made, the photo album our photographer gave me, the negatives and all the digital copies of our wedding photos. The triptych of framed wedding photos on our living room wall. The leftover invitations, in a box on my closet shelf, and all the reply cards from our various guests. The binder I used to save receipts and information while I was planning the wedding. The hanging file photo with pictures of all the dresses I considered. (Bear in mind, this was before I started minifying my life).

I loved our wedding, and I never want to forget it, but I can easily rank the things I most want to save (Quaker certificate, pictures), the things I’ve been told I have to save for posterity (the dress in particular) and the things I just have a hard time throwing away (that file folder…). I need to let some of it go, so that I can stop holding so tightly to a wonderful day from my past and make room to have more wonderful days in my future. We rent a bigger house than we really need, mostly so we can fit all our stuff in it. The money we’ll save on rent, by downsizing, could pay for the trip of a lifetime – more memories we’ll treasure.

Step 4: The trial run. It’s okay to practice living without something, to see if you really miss it. I did this with my car, and discovered that I really need to live somewhere more urban before totally car-free is a viable option for me. But Project 333, where I’m trying out life with only 33 items of clothing, is going great! I think when it’s over I’ll be ready to pare down my wardrobe a lot.

Here’s how it’s gone so far!

Day 1:

Day 2:

And once you’ve practiced living with less stuff, if it makes you feel as cheerful as I’m feeling (see photo evidence), move on to…

Step 5: Get the stuff out the door. Mt. Stuff is still sitting in my guest room/office. I find it sort of satisfying to look at, but mostly, I’m not sure what to do with it. Should I let my friends go through it to see if they want any of it? Have a yard sale? Sell it on e-Bay, or donate it to the thrift shop? I think it’ll be a little of each, although my graduate school department’s annual fundraising yard sale will be getting the lion’s share. Getting it out the door is the final step in letting go.

And did I get anywhere, minifying my possessions over Christmas break? Maybe. I think I could build many more mountains with the stuff that remains in my house, and we’ve got a long way to go before moving day. But somewhere in the pile that is Mt. Stuff, there’s a green binder that says “wedding.” I finally let it go, and it didn’t hurt. I haven’t given up the dress (yet) or even the veil, but I have taken one step toward acknowledging that the stuff is not the same as the memory I associate it with. Anyone else care to join me?

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5 thoughts on “The big purge, 2011 edition (presenting Mt. Stuff)

  1. I’ve been cleaning out for the past year, and with each carload that goes I feel so much lighter! As part of an ongoing New Year’s tradition I started this year, Charlie and I went through his toys and he participated in choosing what things needed to move on to new homes–not easy for a 4 year old. And I also find getting these piles out of the house to be a challenge–the momentum of sorting seems to fizzle out and the piles remain stuck in various corners until I can rouse myself up to get them out.

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