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.
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.
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.
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.