D is for De-cluttering

In my rather bleak post “D is for Difficult, Distress and Diplomacy” for the Quaker Alphabet series I intimated I had originally planned a different post for this letter. So here it is: De-cluttering.

I want to de-clutter. I really do. The reason this features in the Quaker blog series is because of the Quaker testimony to Simplicity. I feel that by leading the life of an inveterate collector of junk, dustballs and pre-loved arcana, I fail to live up to this challenge.



One way this testimony is currently expressed is as follows, in the Advices and Queries:

41. Try to live simply. A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength. Do not be persuaded into buying what you do not need or cannot afford. Do you keep yourself informed about the effects your style of living is having on the global economy and environment?

Advices & Queries, Britain Yearly Meeting

Well, sometimes I try….

I blame it on genetics. My father was an absolute master of hoarding. He never threw anything away if he could help it. And I do mean anything. When he died I found receipts from the local supermarket dating back over 20 years. I’m pretty sure the milk and bread they represented was never intended to last that long.

My parents’ house was full of stuff that my Dad couldn’t throw away. Opening cupboards invariably resulted in a cascade of objects hurtling out at you, landing on your head, or possibly slicing into your shins or trying to crush your toes. There was a shed which you couldn’t get into. Dad had brought the shed with him when he moved into the house in 1957, and it already contained vast piles of my grandparents’ precious bits and pieces. The loft was another treasure trove. There were several old televisions and radios and hi-fis, all beyond repair. I know they were beyond repair because Dad kept fixing them for as long as he could, and being as that was his original profession, he knew what he was doing. One old television emitted a hideous stink as it warmed up, but he and I used it to watch a series of old silent movies while my mother and grandmother sat in the other room watching their programmes. As a result I detect a whiff of rotten eggs every time I see Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd.

When Dad died I tried to rescue some of this cornucopia. There was a pile of 78 rpm records that I wanted to transfer to tape because they held happy memories of my childhood. They had been stacked too high and broken under the weight, but still he couldn’t throw them away.

My mother, on the other hand, threw things out all the time. That included my Spiderman comics, my favourite toys, my own records, my books and even a computer I loaned her to learn word processing. She can be a sentimental creature but not particularly clear on ownership. I’m hardly bitter at all.

These combined examples of hoarding regardless of worth and casual indifference to possessions seem to have left me with a split personality when it comes to keeping things. I keep far too much, and then have a binge of throwing away; almost immediately I suffer pains at the loss and buy more to fill the void in my soul. Taking things to the charity shop is a wonderful double-whammy of self-indulgence. I get to be a hero for donating, and then I spend money buying other people’s cast-offs, which means I donate even more. Go me!

Sigoth hoards as well, although in different ways. It doesn’t help.



We decided last year to try and reduce the clutter, taking as our motto “Keep only what is beautiful or useful”. This meant if we didn’t have a use for something, we had to display it as a decorative object. As an example, I brought my old toy clockwork train out of the loft and it is now on a shelf looking quite sweet and gathering dust.

The problem we have with actually throwing things away is that we can’t abide them just going to landfill when we know that somewhere someone wants them. We have had bad experiences with e-bay; initially it seemed the answer to our problems, but after a run-in with a troll we can’t bear the hassle any more. Nor was the table at the car boot sale particularly successful. I can’t believe how cheap some people are; it’s just plain rude. Somebody wanted to buy an old tea set for almost nothing so I said no and gave it to the charity shop instead. Cheeky blighter.

Once the evenings lighten and the days brighten and I feel my sap rising I plan to start again on the next round. Perhaps I’ll dabble with on-line selling one more time. Perhaps I’ll try one more car boot. Otherwise it’s off to the charity shop again.

And that’s that.

Except it isn’t.

There is all the other stuff that I will still keep. These things fall into a number of categories.

1. Books

I keep books. I have shelves and shelves of them. We live in a large house but there is not enough space for all my books. I have managed to throw away a few bookcases’ worth, but still the majority remain. I have a whole bookcase of the books I have bought but not yet read, and those wretched authors keep writing more. Yet I know that one day I may be unable to afford to buy books, and in that situation I want to have something to read.

2. Clothes

My fat clothes and my thin clothes fill drawers and drawers. Winter and Summer. Work and Home. Posh and Gardening. I can’t afford to keep buying clothes, you know, and I may gain/lose weight any time.

Best to be prepared – can you see the theme here?

3. CDs, DVDs and videos

Eventually these will all be digital but I am still in transition, after 30 years. I even have a cabinet full of my old vinyl albums and singles. Sigoth and I originally implemented a rule that we would only buy a new CD if we also replaced a vinyl album, and for a while it worked and we were able to get rid of quite a few records. Then we stopped, and you know I might one day listen to those old albums again. Funnily enough I am happy to have my music digitally. I can’t manage with books, despite owning and bloating an e-reader with lots of the classics I threw out in dead-tree format. I think this category is one I am most likely to make real strides in improving.

4. China

This is my inexcusable weakness. I do like china; the clay based product as well as the country. It is the former and not the latter that fills my house. Thank goodness. I’m not quite sure where I would stash 1.3 billion Chineses people, given that all the space is taken up with my clutter.

I have tea sets from my grandmother, and mother, and mother-in-law, as well as my own. You can get absolutely gorgeous stuff in charity shops! I collect a couple of common patterns, one in crockery and one in vases. Unfortunately Sigoth likes it too, so I am unrestrained. My excuse is that we like to entertain, and in truth we used to do so. I haven’t done much over recent years as I haven’t felt well enough. I might start again one day and it’s best to be prepared…

5. Heirlooms, Hand-me-downs, Knick-knacks and Gee-gaws

I am an only child and have inherited lots of clutter from the family. Some of the items I managed to rescue from my Dad’s “collection” included my grandmother’s Arts & Crafts style fireguards, her alabaster mantel clock, her hand-built writing bureau, Dad’s hand-made record cabinet, the perpetual calendar, till and scales from Dad’s shop, two Edwardian dining chairs, my parents’ mantel clock, two Lloyd Loom chairs, a sewing workbox, a standard lamp, the chest of drawers my Dad built when I was born, dressing table sets, a gentleman’s razor, and, inevitably, some cuddly toys.

And it’s here sentiment really does kick in.

My plan with the items in this last category is to photograph them and to create a catalogue. I suspect once I have the whole, terrible list in front of me I will be able to let some of them go. I have found this to be a useful tip: once I have the photo of an item to refer to I feel happy to let the actual physical item go out the door.

The furniture is likely to stay though because it’s good, solid, useful furniture. We live in an old house, and it suits the style. However, I really don’t need a shaving set. I’m proud of my whiskers!

Sigoth and I do have a plan and we are enacting it, like vegetable empires, yet more slow. Our poor old house was in need of a lot of work when we bought it and we have been sorting it out over the past decade as time and money permit. The structural work has now been done and we are finally decorating. In each room, as we plan it out, we agree what will live there, and if something does not belong it is removed. It’s one reason the loft is filling up. When we have finished, we will have a pile of leftovers, and those are the things we will have to make decisions about.

Back to Advices and Queries for a moment, because there was a tenuous link at the start. Why is it important to live simply? And does clutter hinder it, as I feel it does? The reason is, I think, that when we are overly mindful of things we cannot see past them to the true essence of living.

Keeping things that are useful or beautiful enhances our appreciation of life; so long as those things do not overwhelm us. I know I regret some of the things I have lost, and I also know that is due to my own insecurities and lack of self-confidence, because those things helped define who I am and gave me a sense of security (being prepared, being in control, being able to deal with whatever life threw my way). By strengthening my inner resources I will learn to let go of my outward crutches and walk freely in the light. In fact, then I might come to follow the advice of George Fox to its fullest extent.

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.

George Fox, 1656

By working towards simplicity I hope to recognise what Fox called “that of God”, and others may call the Inner Buddha, or Seed, or Light, or Christ, in myself and in others so that I can be part of bringing about peace.



Dr Seuss helps EBL de-clutter

Some of the things we found in the loft today (and some we didn’t, but are included just for approximate meter and rhyme)

Oh say! Can you see the clutter and the clatter in the attic up the ladder?

Grandma’s clocks, and crocks in box

Hats and gloves and scarves and socks

Captain Kirks and Mr Spocks

All go in the charity box

Pins and bins and cans and pans

Fans and pens and rocks and smocks

All go in the charity box

I can pack with my eyes shut

Crate it up and take it out

In the snow the rubbish must go

In the car to the dump

Bags and boxes, flump and crump!

Out with dust! Out with rust!

Clearing, clearing is a must!

I do not like all this clutter

Why did it stay? I was a nutter!

Now I prance and dance and smile

Now I’m living minimal-style!



Lofty Ambition

I had a plan, as I have mentioned before, about how to spend my time rather than old-fogeying in front of the television. On the whole it has gone well this week, and I have been able to dig out my calligraphy books and write the alphabet badly with terrible pens.

I don’t rush things, you know. I was first introduced to the wonders of lettering very many years ago, back in the dawn of time when dinosaurs ruled the earth. They were terrible at calligraphy though; they just couldn’t hold the pen or brush in their stubby little fingers or beaks, and that was why mammals were invented. Opposable thumbs are apparently a Good Idea if you want to do nice writing (although I completely acknowledge that there will be artists out there who can do better with some of their toes than I can with all my fingers).

The great revelation about the writing-pretty happened at a creative workshop event back in 1991. That year I bought paper and pens and inks and did indeed practise the art and craft of writing very slowly, but carefully and mindfully, in wonky celtic script. The concentration required to produce even a wobbly line of text, to make it fit and to invest the care and attention it deserved, was completely absorbing and peaceful. Then I had 4th Offspring and started a Masters.

I always meant to go back to it and do some more. I meant if seriously and faithfully and nobly. It just never happened. Until this week.

The Plan, though, marches on apace and declares that this weekend I am going to work on Da Novel, get out and take some pictures, practise my classical guitar and revise my Anglo-Saxon. The Plan is full throttle, all-out mayhem, if followed slavishly, allowing no time for living, getting groceries, doing laundry or tidying up, and I think I meant only to do two of the four, depending on circumstances. So far, it is almost time to make dinner and I have achieved none of them.

It’s time to regroup. The reason for achieving none of those things is that, as well as the Plan, I also have a Project. Sigoth and I are now embarked on decorating the guest bedroom. We only got a guest bedroom last year when Youngest Offspring went to university. He and his brother still share it when they are home, for example at Christmas. We can only work on it during term times. So last weekend Sigoth and I sat down and devised a Project Plan.

Obviously I am the Project Manager; it’s my real job too, so I brook no argument. With great certification comes great responsibility. I have done a resource calculation, and estimated the time required for tasks. I am even going Agile on this baby and have time-boxed everything. This is because our last project evaluation revealed that the slippage was due to spending longer than planned (or needed, in truth) on some tasks. So we have learned and I have scheduled accordingly, as well as giving the team a pep talk.

As Project Officer, Sigoth is currently clearing out the loft.

Wait a moment, EBL! The loft? Didn’t you say you were decorating the bedroom?

Thanks for paying attention! Allow me to elucidate.

Have you heard that rhyme about the battle and the horse and the nail? You know, “for want of a nail, the shoe was lost” and so on. Go on, you know the one I mean.

Anything we try to do in EBL Towers turns out like that. In order to decorate the room we have to clear it, or at least have space to shift furniture about a bit. In order to make space we have to take out the boxes we put there while we decorated our bedroom before Christmas. That means we have to sort them out and decide what is going into the loft or to the dump. So we need to clear space in the loft for the things we want to store up there. Honestly, the painting bit is the really quick bit at the end.

I have to confess: Sigoth and I are hoarders. We have so much junk which we kept because it might come in handy. Or it used to belong to someone, like my dad, or Sigoth’s grandpa, and we don’t want to part with it. Or the Offspringses might conceivably want it one day. Or the putative grandchildren. Or it ought to be worth something on eBay. Or I’ll need it if I throw it out (this last is occasionally even true). Need I go on?

We kept our textbooks from university in case we had children who would find them useful. We graduated in 1983. One Offspring did indeed study one of my subjects. Unfortunately my textbooks were so out of date they were completely useless. They are still in the loft though. Just in case.

So last year we committed to the creed of William Morris and agreed to keep things only if they were useful or beautiful. It was a mighty change of heart, and we stumble often. But lofty ambition is what makes us human, and so we keep on trying. The text books will soon be gone. I might photograph them before taking them to the dump; it helps ease the pain. Declutter we must and we have set ourselves to learn the rules and by working hard we hope to pass the test.

What we have learned is the new-found delight of letting go. The all-new bedroom we now sleep in has space and light and only beautiful or useful things. The bed is useful, the blanket I knitted is both useful and beautiful. The pictures are pretty. The floor is clear. It takes no more than 10 minutes to clean, instead of over an hour. Every morning I wake up and fall in love with it again.

Letting go. It’s such an important lesson, but as said before, EBL is not fast. She is the tortoise, but the tortoise moves. Each day she moves closer to her goal, even if the route is circuitous and the goal also moves. Her ambition remains unwavering.

Each little success, each item taken to the charity shop or recycled at the dump or given to one who finds it useful and/or beautiful; each of these instances brings us both a little injection of peace. It is easy to learn a lesson that fits what we already think and do; learning to change is the hard part. Sigoth and I continue to learn, every day.