Inching Toward Simplicity: Pragmatics and Prose

Monday, October 29, 2007

Mountains of Things


  • -Here's a piece, courtesy of Home Is Where the Dirt Is, on tackling attic clutter.

  • -I have always been intrigued by the idea of bartering, making your junk another's treasure (and hopefully acquiring something you actually need). Here's one site devoted to bartering.

  • -Even better than bartering (especially if you want to live more lightly) is Freecycle, a concept that is taking off.

  • -I love how Imelda Marcos ended up opening a shoe museum. I'd love to charge admission to my clutter!


This weekend, despite the recent relative heat wave up to the low 70s, we agreed it was time to retire our stand fan until next summer. I clumped clumsily up the stairs, already anticipating a challenge in finding space. I found a nearby cluster of miscellany that suited my purposes, but before I descended back to our home I shuddered at the mountain of things piled before me.

At least the clutter has a halfway house outside of our living quarters. The problem is that the halfway house too often becomes a permanent residence for what amounts to junk. Worst case: we actually have a box labeled “tacky Christmas ornaments”. I also noticed at least 4 plastic trick-or-treating pumpkins (and we only have 1 child). What else? A box of old cell phones that we meant to donate, old lace curtains that will never see a window again, kitchen tchatzkahs (Yiddish for knick-knacks), textbooks (I am approaching 2 decades out of college), etc, etc.

Why do we hang on to this stuff? A lot of reasons. Sentiment, guilt, or laziness, to start. In my case, I often hang onto things because they represent an idea. I buy books because I like the title, or I’ve heard I should read certain titles. One day I look back and there are 10 unread titles waiting for me. And then, whatever the initial reason for keeping what you keep, a sense of being overwhelmed takes over.

When I worked in psychiatry, mental illness was often defined by how some behavior impaired your ability to function. (In politically incorrect lay terms, we are all at least a little crazy. It’s just that many of us still manage to function.) The ultimate example of dysfunctional squirreling away is a feature of obsessive-compulsive disorder called hoarding. I once had a patient who crowded himself out of his own house with old newspapers. He knew intellectually that he did not need these newspapers, but emotionally they came to symbolize security to him.

Whether you have a bona fide diagnosis or not, the key to any level of overwhelm is baby steps. I want to go to my attic at least every Sunday and remove a minimum of 5 things. It’s not just that I want a clean attic: I also want to honor the simplicity I so admire as a philosophy and as a real-life approach. There aren’t many specific objects like plastic pumpkins, trivets, or lace curtains I need in plural tense. For other things, like shoes, I concede I need a small collection to cover work, exercise, or dressy occasions. Still, I have accumulated way more shoes than I need, and I am not even into shoes!

The clutter phenomenon reminds me of weight gain: you turn around one day and you are much larger than you intended. And the American habit of overabundance reminds me of the potato chip slogan You can’t eat just one. Becoming larger than you want to be, whether in girth or possession, is connected to living unconsciously, or living by skewed priorities. You keep eating the chips, glassy eyed and no longer hungry. Or you keep buying the items you think you need, although if you looked again at home, or thought about it, you would find that you didn’t need some, and had nearly identical matches for others.

Typical of me, in a spring cleaning mood in near-November. Maybe it's the global warming.

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