I know. Sounds most unlikely as a special or celebratory act, right? But stay with me. It’s been a pretty thorough tidying up, with some surprisingly lovely and unexpectedly profound things involved.
It all started when my landlady was getting people in to quote for redecorating my house, and one of the decorators thus consulted had a look in the front room where all my books and bookbinding equipment and supplies live—and we are talking a lot of paper here, friends—and said, ‘Hmm, when we’re done, you’ll have a chance to put things back nicely, won’t you?’. Patronising git. (And he left the seat up, too.)
Irritating as this interaction was—he didn’t get the contract, as you can imagine—it did make me think about how I might make the process doable, given that I run my therapy practice from home and need the house to be a quiet, orderly space in which clients can feel safe. I determined to make a virtue out of necessity and do some serious tidying up and throwing out beforehand, so that there would be fewer things to move from room to room and paint around. I wanted it to be as swift and painless as possible.
Obviously the first step was to binge-watch videos about decluttering and downsizing on Youtube; and blimey, who knew there was such debate about different methods of tidying up, decluttering or whatever else you want to call it. Hold things and see what “sparks joy”! Keep what fits in a rucksack! Do it all it a one-er, one glorious orgy of de-consumption! Take it slowly, give yourself time to make decisions! Have a packing party! Do it room by room! No, do it by type of item! Chuck it if you haven’t used it within a month/year and/or if you can replace it within 20 miles of your house or for under 20 quid… There are a lot of people with a lot to say about getting rid of stuff.
But what they all have in common, though, is an acknowledgement that there is emotional work involved in getting rid of stuff. And this I found to be true. Partly it’s because there are a lot of decisions to be made—countless decisions; and making decisions is tiring. It’s hard to get out of the I might need/use/wear it one day mindset, so that it can feel rash or foolish to eject something (even though you know, intellectually, that you haven’t needed, used or worn it in years). As well as that, though, stuff can feel like safety: and I don’t mean in the regular and unthinking acquisition of it—that’s a whole other subject involving a critique of capitalism which I don’t feel up to in this column—but rather simply feeling buttressed by stuff, bolstered by it, your attention engaged by it. It can feel reassuring, in all sorts of ways.
Stuff can feel like it contains your past, and your potential future, too. Potential is the key word here. For me the whole process turned out to be a new way to be honest with myself—about who I have been, who I am now, what I am realistically likely to become. Confronting the piles of books from my own childhood, and from when I was a primary teacher, and accepting (all over again) that I will never have a child of my own to read them with and pass them on to, was very difficult indeed. A reward for going through the pain of facing this, though, was the experience of handing them on to children with whom I do have a connection. A friend’s child, who’d asked for the first Harry Potter for his birthday, went ‘WOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!’ as he unwrapped the complete set. My eyes filled with bittersweet tears.
I let myself grieve, too, for things I’ve done and been and won’t ever do or be again. For instance, I sent to the charity shop an awful lot of books which I read during my PhD and counselling training, which felt like a letting go of—or at least loosening my connection with—an important configuration of me: the scholar, the academic, the reader, the expert in something. Hard. Hanging on to a few special photos and items, some of which are finding their way into my wonder books—see thing 10—I relinquished a lot of stuff from my childhood and youth. Although I’m 51 and really should already know I’m no longer young, this too was, somehow, extremely painful. I let go of clothes and craft stuff and crockery and out-of-code foodstuffs and music I’ll never sing again and music I’ll never listen to again and pictures I no longer look at and rucksacks which have never been comfortable and shoes I’ve never worn (because I’m never really that smart or prepared to be uncomfortable) and make-up and clothes (ditto) and that weird collection of mysterious cables and old notebooks and hairdryers and baskets that had had stuff in them and old boxfiles and seed sprouters and tired towels and bedlinen I never actually use… Oh, and unwanted presents (which involved a lot of strategic redistribution in charity shops in different towns where I knew that potentially-offended friends would not find them!).
Part of what made all this letting-go possible, for me, was the creation of small rituals. I held things, talked to them, acknowledged what they had done for or meant to me, and sent them out into the world with happy hopes and wishes about what they might now go on to do for. and mean to, their next owners. So much stuff. So much loss, so much past. And so much new, empty space to be enjoyed. So much potential. I began to like this.
And so getting rid of stuff got to be addictive. While I was in the main frenzy of it, it felt really odd to leave the house without having at least a small bag of things to take to Oxfam or the Heart Foundation or wherever. Indeed, while I wouldn’t have said I’m a particularly materialistic or heavily-consuming person, not least because of lack of income, still, there was a surprising number of trips to Age UK—so much so that I got to know the staff and volunteers really well and it became a running gag that no, even on its fifth visit to the warehouse in my car boot, they still weren’t going to take my old printer. This led eventually to the sole tip trip where there I felt horrified—in a useful way—as I cast it into a skip full of other unwanted items. This was just one small skip in one small town in one small country, but it was a saddening, frightening container of unnecessary foulness, waste and over-consumption. A fresh resolve formed in me to buy as little as possible, and to mend whenever I could. This has been immediately tested by my hoover and washing machine breaking in the same week—I managed to find people to mend them; and then the car exhaust blew. ‘£350 for the replacement part? Is it made of gold????’ I yelped with slightly mad-sounding incredulity. ‘Actually, yes: it has gold, platinum and myrrh in it’ (or something like that; I was feeling a bit feverish by now). So bless Mr Lovely Garage Man for welding and mending the broken one. I know all this is the mite-iest of mites. But it’s better than no mite. It feels like a hopeful act in the face of the kind and scale of appallingness which leads all too easily to despair and inaction.
And starting to live with less—I’m doing my best to stick with a one in, one out rule, now—doesn’t have to mean the joyless wearing of black polo necks. (If you’ve got perceptible breasts then a polo neck just gives you one giant lateral uniboob, so that option was out anyway.) For me this tidying up and throwing away has been a physical manifestation of grieving, and has created space, literally and metaphorically, in which I can carry on growing into whatever I’m going to be next. It’s about having the room to live intentionally, making choices about what I have, what I buy, what I do; about staying more checked in with who I am now—and who I want to try to be. Pretty cosmic for tidying up, huh?
Ring out the old, ring in the new.
You can read the poem from which the post’s title is taken here. And you can see the trailer for quite an interesting documentary on the new minimalism movement here. The documentary itself is pay-to-view on Youtube but available on Netflix.