How I declared my independence from stuff

President Thomas Whitmore giving his famous speech in Independence Day
President Thomas Whitmore giving his famous speech in Independence Day

“We will not go quietly into the night!

We will not vanish without a fight!

We’re going to live on!

We’re going to survive!”

Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!

Today most of American is celebrating independence from British rule, not by taking up arms against a sea of oppressors, but by uniting in a love of grilled food and firework displays. I’m not sure what this tradition signifies other than to serve as an example of how for Americans a holiday is not a holiday unless something is roasting on a fire and loud booms are heard by evenings end. Hell, we cherish this tradition so much so that weekend long civic events center around it, with neighboring towns taking nightly turns setting off fireworks.

While most of my friends and neighbors celebrated with food, fire and more fire, I chose to celebrate the holiday in a non-traditional way. Well, actually, now that I think about it, in a very un-American way: celebrating British culture by binge watching both Hollow Crown series (or as we say in America, both seasons) and by declaring my independence from stuff. In other words, I spent my three day weekend days purging my house of unused material goods and my nights with 5 of England’s Kings. I can only hope my American readers can appreciate the almost comedic irony in this.

I didn’t pick this particular weekend, this particular holiday, to engage in my un-American activities, it just lent itself to my purposes. Many close friends are aware that I’ve been struggling with the idea of a self-imposed purge for a couple of months. Our conversations have focused around the morbid topic of “Who’s in charge of your stuff once you are gone?” What happens to all of the clutter, the household goods, and “treasures” we hold onto in life after we shuffle off this mortal coil? I am not comfortable with the idea that my son, who would be busy grieving, would also have to go through and decide what to do with stuff that I was attached to, and by degree, stuff that he would now be attached to because of me. I recently saw a friend go through this with her mother. Dealing with loss of her mother was hard enough, but cleaning out her mother’s house was almost unbearable. The thought of leaving this task to my son now seems cruel and a little selfish. You may ask why at my age would this become important. Surely this sort of purge can wait? A fair question, yet given my recent health issues, it is a topic worthy of contemplating and planning.

What caused me to pick this particular weekend had less to do with my morbid thoughts than with necessity; I’m getting a roommate, someone who has committed to a year’s lease, maybe longer (jokingly we say we may become the real life Golden Girls) and in return I committed to making extra room for her stuff. I have a deadline to get this done, so this is how my holiday became a holiday of purging. I had no idea that this endeavor would turn out to be the catalyst for my independence from stuff. But a wonderful thing happened on the way to the dumpster. I learned to let go.

How many of you are familiar with the American TV show Hoarders? If you’ve watched even just one or two episodes you may have found yourself shuddering at the thought of clinging to mounds and mounds of garbage and unused goods. These poor souls are vexed with mental and emotional anguish at the mere suggestion that there are some things that are not worth keeping. Some to the point of flying into rages as they are asked to throw away moldy garbage or old containers. As viewers we may feel for them but also relieved to know we are not like them. But, I suspect in one way or another, all of us share their fear of letting go of our stuff. Oh we may not call it fear; we find ways to justify our need to keep things we do not use, but underneath is the fear of letting go. This fear underlines many of our justifications: What if I need this… (fill in the blank) later? I paid good money for this…., why should I give it away? What if this…is worth something later? No, seriously, I’ve given …. away before, only to turn around and buy another just like it, I won’t do it again! I may not have a use for …now, but I have plans for it later when I have more time. I’d bet that you’ve had one or two of these thoughts. Would it surprise you to learn that hoards use these same arguments? Once I figured out these were my main arguments it became easier to let go, and it all started with closet space.

I promised my new roommate I’d clear the guest bedroom closet for her use. The bedroom she will be using does not have enough space for her cloths and I wanted to start clearing out stuff anyway; why not start with an extra closet I rarely use? Besides, it would push me to clear out my bedroom closet space, as the stuff in the guest bedroom would have to go somewhere. Turns out, most of it went to charity.

I started with the top shelf of my bedroom closet and made a plan to work my way down. Some of the stuff on the top shelf had been there for years. Determined to rid myself of a few items, I decided to view my goods as I do my TBR bookshelf (for those of you new to my blog, I’ve written about my bi-yearly purge of unread books here). I started with items that had not been touched in two years or more, finding to my chagrin, things I had completely forgotten I even owned! Apparently years ago I found a Catholic nun doll so adorable I just had to bring her home and set out as an ironic keepsake. At some point I lost all my mirth with her and placed her back in her box and up on my top shelf. I had forgotten all about her. What else would I find lurking in my closet? I went at the purge with all the intensity of a pirate digging for buried treasure. Sadly, I didn’t find anything of real value.

By the time I finished cleaning out my closet I had a mound of purses, scarves, plastic flowers, belts, hats, vests, (when did I wear vests?) a vase and trivial odds and ends, most of which I had completely forgotten I owned. Looking at the pile I had a moment of panic. Am I a hoarder??! If not, what was I doing with this pile of forgotten useless pile of material goods? As I stood rooted in fear, gently nudging the pile with my foot as if I were nudging a wild animal in order to ascertain if it was dead, or just mostly dead, a light bulb went off in my head. Like most of those who have been raised on consumerist dogma, I’ve never had a problem purchasing new items that appeal to my sense of style (like a shiny new purse or coat) but it never occurred to me to recycle whatever item I was replacing! It sounds like such a simple concept now, but two days ago this was a revelation. I could no longer use the argument “I paid good money for that.. I don’t want to give it away” because in order to believe that, in order for that to be true, I would have to also believe it would be a waste of money to replace it with something new. Ahh, I was starting to let go. But this was only the beginning of my independence.

Once I realized just how much unused stuff was in my house, a new mission was born. I would rid myself of the tyranny of material possession and shake the bonds that tied my sense self-worth (for what other reason do we own more stuff than we use?) to those things that I owned. Once free of these mental chains I spent the weekend going through and evaluating everything I owned.

Here is a list of some things that went:

Pillowcases Every new set of sheets comes with matching pillow cases and though over the years I have replaced a few sheet sets I’ve never rid myself of their matching cases. Out went 6 case sets. I am now down to matching sheets and cases.

Sheet sets My son has been gone for 5 years, yet I’ve never gotten rid of his double bed sheet sets. Why? His bed is gone and my guest bed does not require more than two sets. Out went four sets of sheets.

Old bath towels I’ve replaced several old worn or stained bath towel (yes, some how I managed to get bleach on some of my good towels) but god forbid I get rid of the old ones. They ended up in the linin closet, just in case I needed an old towel for one on my mad painting projects. I kept 3 and got rid of 5.

Comforters I’ve changed my bedroom decor three times since moving in and each time I replace my comforter to reflect that change. But did I get rid of the old ones? No. Why? Because, damn it, I paid good money for them and might use them again. Gone are two big comforters that took up way to much closet space.

Vases I dated a guy who was in the habit of giving me flowers; lots and lots of flowers, often in a vase. Now that he and the bi-weekly gift of flowers are gone I am left with a kitchen cupboard full of vases. No more! 10 vases out.

Dish set My friend who lost her mother couldn’t quite bring herself to pack up a nice set of sunflower dishes as they were a favorite of her mother’s. I took them off her hands and assured her they would be loved at my house. They are nice, much nice than my old set, so out that went. What the hell, shouldn’t we eat off the nice dishes all the time?

Books Over a year ago I gathered together seven boxes of books, (you can read about it here) five of which still sat in my guest bedroom. As hard as it was to admit over the years I’ve spent way too much money and so kept them, off they finally went.

Kitchen goods I went though my kitchen cupboards and found a collection of jars. I kept some, but most went out. I don’t make homemade mayo, why do I need these jars? The same with kitchen utensils and gadgets; duplicates and in some cases, triplicates were tossed. I had three garlic presses. Why? Why?! Seriously, I may need a kitchen gadget based intervention.

And on it went. The more I purged the better I felt. I emptied cupboards, shelves, drawers, and garage space. The more that went the less I wanted in the house. It occurred to be that when I was young I vowed I’d never own more than would fit in my Mustang (with the top down of course) and now I am faced with the fact, that over the years I’ve broken that vow time and time again.

I used to laugh at the George Carlin joke about buying a house just to fill it with stuff, and once filled, buy a larger house for more stuff. I am not laughing anymore. Now I understand his joke. We buy houses then fill all the empty nooks and crannies with stuff and call ourselves free. We are fee to buy what we need, free to buy what we want. But in the end, all of this stuff weighs us down and becomes a burden not to just ourselves but to those who must purge it after we are gone. No more will I buy something just to have it. No more will I fill all the empty spaces I now have in my home. In this, I am declaring my independence from stuff.

I not only declare my independence from unused stuff and thereby burdening my son with the task of clearing it out, I declare that from now on when I decide to replace an item I will do so only after I get rid of whatever item its replacing. We will have no more mismatched pillowcases!


Happy 4th of July

You bought it, but are you really going to read it?

Cats, books, etc 035

I’m going to start this post with the disclaimer that my words may hit a nerve with one or two of you. It’s never my intention to offend, rather open a door for discussion. We’re going to talk about book hoarding and what it means for books when people collect them, yet never get around to reading them.

Nothing sends a shiver down my spine more than when somebody tells me they have more books than they have room for, or that they have over 5000 books with the majority unread.

I know one lady who spends her daily lunch hours in an old used bookstore, bringing home at least 20 books a week .I swear to god she spends more time shopping for books and she does reading them. I know another who has at last count, three plastic tubs of paperbacks hidden under her bed so that her husband won’t find them. These too go unread.

But why? Why do people collect books only to hide them away or stack them up in boxes and bags? This obsession with owning books must feed more than a desire to read. It’s an expression of something deeper, an unspoken need that manifests in book hoarding.

My grandmother collected salt-and-pepper shakers. She had a 6 x 5 wood and glass shelf that hung on a wall in her living room. I spent countless hours of my childhood staring at the shakers and making up stories about them. When my grandmother passed away one of my cousins and I split the shakers. I got the ones that meant the most to me; the ones that my mother had given to my grandmother, the ones that my aunt, who was a second mother to me, had given to her and the ones that my grandmother talked about the most.  These salt- and- pepper shakers now sit in a cabinet in my kitchen along with several others that friends and family have given me over the years.  When I ran out of shelf space I said “enough” I’m not collecting them anymore, just as my grandmother stopped when she ran out of room. At some point the objects themselves can become meaningless and the act of collecting for collecting’s sake takes over.

Books are meant to be read. Authors do not spend countless hours pouring their souls into their work only to have us collect them to be put in bags and bins and hid away for secret storage. When we do this the stories and words contained in these books lose all their value. They become objects with no real meaning.  When we buy books and hide them we are taking away someone else’s chance to buy them and actually read them.

This is what puts a shiver down my spine when someone brags about his or her book hoarding/collecting. They are disrespecting the stories and authors who write them. They are taking them away from other readers who will appreciate them in the way books are meant to be appreciated.  If you buy it, are you going to read it? If not, you may want to ask yourself “why”.

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