Sharon November 19th, 2008

Once I finally get through the holidays and the latest book, my next project is major cleaning, sorting and organizing of my home.  That is, it is time to come bang up against the real question of what I need, what I don’t, and how to manage my life.

Now I have a very ambivalent relationship to the question of stuff.  On the one hand, I’m not a big fan of consumption, and I recognize it as a major potential issue. I buy most of my possessions used, and as a consumer, well, I’m one of those people dragging the economy down ;-).

 On the other hand, for someone who is hostile to consumption, I have, well, a lot of stuff.  You all know I live in a big old farmhouse - well, that farmhouse is full of stuff.  I’m not really sure how to resolve this contradiction, or how I feel about it.

Part of the issue is that I live in two worlds - I am living now in a high energy society, that makes use of a lot of high energy tools that cost a lot of money.  While I minimize my use of some of these, I also depend upon them - for example, my computer. In order for me to do my job, I need a computer, a phone line and the money to keep up an internet connection. 

Beyond that minimum, there are things I use because I do this other work - for example, I could hand wash all my laundry, but then I probably would have less time for the blog.  There may come a time when I think that trade off is reasonable, but for now, the washing machine is a necessity. 

Then there are things I have because for most of us, not having them is unacceptable to our society - for example, once upon a time, kids wore their playclothes for long periods, and it was not unusual to see kids rewearing fairly dirty clothes when at play.  I live in a society where dirt is perceive as a sign of neglect, so my kids need to have many more clothes than are actually essential, so that they can be seen mostly in clean clothing, while still going out and getting dirty.

Then there are parts of high energy culture that I really value - I have many thousands of books, and I read and re-read them, refer to them in my writings and enjoy having them.  I realize that the author Chaucer died with fewer than 50 books (a mammoth library by the standards of the day), but I’m simply not prepared to do without mine, at least as long as I live fairly far from a good library.  I don’t find cheap printing or the ability to get to hear long-ago recordings of classical music along with my hip hop at all bad uses of our energy abundance, and even if I should, I don’t feel terribly inclined to go down to a handful of CDs or books.

At the same time, I also live a low energy lifestyle, and am anticipating a much lower energy one.   This also requires equipment.  For example, I grind my own grain, which means finding space on the counter for a grain grinder.  I have more than 700 canning jars, which I fill with things, but then which gradually empty out and must be stored.  Besides our CD player and CDs, we have a piano and other instruments, since my husband makes acoustic music.  We have two woodstoves, which necessitate a large supply of wood and tools for the stove, wood chopping and managing wood. 

Now sometimes I can manage these two lives by choosing to prioritize one - for example, I can decide that I’m going to get rid of the food processor to make space for the grain grinder, or to replace one of our vehicles with a bike and trailer.  The clothesline has replaced the dryer, the freezer and natural cooling our fridge, solar charged batteries our old one-use kind.

But often, I’m struggling to balance the requirements of both lives.  For example, several times a year we visit family in Boston or New York City.  When we do this, it is awfully convenient to have a furnace to be kept at a very low temperature, to keep the pipes from freezing.  If we don’t do this, we have to drain the pipes and shut off the water, which means that whoever cares for our animals has to haul water from the pump outside.  So fr now, we have both a furnace and woodstoves.  We have bikes and a car.  We have a water pump and running water.  We’re trying, as best we can, to balance and compromise.

I try very hard to make sure that when I acquire a lower-energy tool, I do make use of it - that it doesn’t just sit around for an emergency that may or may not come.  Thus, we do cook quite a lot in our solar oven - but I can’t say that it has totally replaced my electric stove in summer.  

And it all adds up to a lot of stuff.  Then add in the other stuff.  The kids’s toys.  The clothes.  The tools.  The books.  The music.  The pots and pans, the furniture and books we’ve stored for other people, the stuff we inherited from Eric’s grandparents and don’t have time to get rid of….oy vey!  Even though we do try to manage it well and to limit our consumption, it adds up to well, too much.  We have fewer space constraints than most people, but maybe more chaos constraints - that is, we’re running a farm, both of us work (although I do from home and so does Eric part of the time), we homeschool, we have kids whose full time project is to create messes - generally speaking, time for management is at a premium and things get well…chaotic.

So my goal is to try and bring order to the chaos.  But that means figuring out not just what I really need now, but what I’m likely to need in a future when going out and buying things isn’t as common.  There’s a tendency, I think, to hoard uncritically - to see everything as potentially necessary, and sometimes that’s followed by a desire to get rid of things that is also uncritical, or at least has been for me - finding a graceful way to navigate through our stuff and make our life better organized and a bit smaller is going to be a project. I’ll be updating you on the chaos and whether any progress is made.

So how are you doing this?  What worlds are you living in?  How are you managing these issues?


59 Responses to “Stuff”

  1. Green Hill Farmon 19 Nov 2008 at 11:51 am

    We’re twins :). I have way too much stuff primarily in my basement, cast off stuff from living in a house for 26 years, inherited furniture clogging garage, fabric I’ve bought new and yard sales. For years I’ve had fantasies of any empty basement and garage, dh’s fantasy is a dumpster :).

    Then I learn about PO and future where buying things is expensive or difficult. What if people need to move in? Our basement is long and a walkout so not a bad place to set up for folks, with of course all that inherited furniture :).
    Clothes so far I’ve filled two large suitcases with clothes I really don’t like (but for most part are fine and fab even if thats all one had or those folks living with us). Fabric of course is new clothes and blankets etc.

    I’ve rediscovered knitting and am also taking a class (love it, learning Fair Isle) so the yarn is magically multiplying :).

    Let us know how you resolve too much stuff with the “need” to hoard stuff ha ha.

    Beth in Massachusetts

  2. Devin Quinceon 19 Nov 2008 at 12:07 pm

    We are trying to reduce our clutter also and energy consumption. We would love to be able to ditch the fridge for a cold cellar, but not feasible currently. I work in computers, so also need a phone line, electricity, internet, etc. for that. We are down to one car, as I commute full time by bike and we put maybe 3-5K miles last year on the car and this year is set to be lower. Some day we hope to be self sufficient to point that all we have for bills are property taxes and a few other things, but not for awhile. We try to live in the low energy world for the most part, but sometimes we have to cross over to the dark side.

  3. Leila Abu-Sabaon 19 Nov 2008 at 12:19 pm

    I don’t know, I think that your world view is going to drive you to hold on to a lot of stuff. You outlined the parameters. That’s the way it is, unless you have a radical underlying shift in values.

    Maybe the real issue is thinking you have to have order amongst all this stuff. What if you just accepted the disorder/chaos as is?

    I just happen to think that when we make a plan God laughs. It’s admirable that you’re getting ready for all these possibilities, but otoh, life has a way of up-ending everything. Being flexible, resourceful, adaptable and sociable are qualities that will save you and any of us in the end. Good luck to all…

    and anyway, no one of us knows what tomorrow may bring. I sure as hell don’t!

  4. Lydiaon 19 Nov 2008 at 12:23 pm

    Americans and their stuff! Isn’t the accumulation of of lot of “toys” part of the American Dream? The big house, three cars, jet ski, hiking “stuff”, stuff for all our hobbies, the list in never ending. The question of what stuff to keep and what stuff to get rid of is particularly vexing for those of us who have a lot of stuff and who also hold a few greener values and maybe want to try and do our part to “save the planet” and pare down our lives. *Sigh*

    This is, I believe more than just an organizational problem. I really believe it is a spiritual problem. Look at the minimalists who live with very little stuff. Think about how the Buddhists view things and their place in this world.

    A while ago, I sold a big house and moved into a tiny little house that has one third the square footage and yet I had all the stuff that filled up the b house.
    Some went to the dump, some got crammed into my little house and some is in storage waiting determination. *Ahem* some of it, may wait for a very long time. My best friends mother hung on to stuff for thirty years only to be forced into dumping things due to a living situation that would never change. She hung on for many reasons. The stuff symbolized her old life, she had memories attached. She is aging, and when the stuff went so did her youth. Stuff is oftentimes more than just stuff. It is the part and parcel of our very lives, and we hang on to that so we can still feel valuable. So we do not have to say to ourselves in the middle of the night while we lie awake in the dark - “I really do not matter much in the scheme of things” do I? In a very short time, in the blink of an eye, one morning when the chill of the reapers hand creeps up from the beneath the bed covers, I will cease to exist. My stuff is all that reminds others that I existed.

    Stuff connects us to the past and the future. Consider the time spent by archaeologists digging for stuff. Collectors pay handsomely for some page of memoirs from a dead famous person, or look how much we value antiques.

    There is much that we Americans are made to feel guilty about. Having a lot of material things is one of them. While I do not believe it is a good practice to aspire to the likes of the greedy Wall Street types, I also do not want to feel like pond scum for living in a country that has a very nice standard of living. I do not want to feel like I am responsible for the misfortune of someone in Kenya or some Mexican border town who is just scratching out a living. I may indeed have inadvertently been responsible for those suffering in China if I shop at Wal Mart, but who is more responsible? The parent or the child? Is is not the Corporation who first sought to take advantage of a situation in the quest for money and power?

    I by no means hold the Ayn Rand philosophy of “I got mine, so screw you”, but I do not think that having all of the things I have or love is wrong in any moral or literal sense. I am actually grateful for the things I have. I have everything I need and quite a few of my wants. The key for me is how do I feel about them? Are they just taking up space? Do I have five of the same kind of food processor? I too, Sharon have hundreds of books (about two thousand actually) lots of music and some wonderful antique furniture.
    I am keeping them all, and I am feeling good about that. I am blessed.

    I will still grow my food and turn off my lights. I can curb my shopping for things not needed and I can turn off the TV. If I lost everything in a fire tomorrow, I would grieve, but I would not die and I would be grateful for my life, even though all my stuff was gone.

    As I sort through my stuff I am mindful of my attitude about it. I recognize none of it is as important as my life, my good health, my love of good friends and family and how I treat other souls who are passing through on this ole mud ball we call home.

  5. deweyon 19 Nov 2008 at 12:43 pm

    I’m a semi-minimalist married to a hoarder from a long line of hoarders (both sides of the family), and sometimes his stuff just about pushes me to the brink. Some of the categories of stuff are, admittedly, potentially useful, but they’re still done to excess: he has toolboxes full of files, mason jars full of nails, and on and on. (No, he is not any kind of professional woodworker, at most a casual hobbyist.) I tend to favor John Michael Greer’s opinion of hoarding: if things really become so bad that you cannot buy or trade for a skein of yarn or box of nails, then having a house packed to the rafters with useful things will only make you an enormous target. Much better to develop useful SKILLS that can be practiced and marketed cheaply. That is, the time my husband spends looking for more tools at garage sales and on eBay is time he cannot spend improving his woodworking skill so it would really be marketable. It is a nightmare to move house with this man. He admits that the stuff is a burden but he is completely unable to confront the problem. (Anyone have any suggestions that are cheaper than psychotherapy or arson?)

    My own perspective is colored by having seen how people live in various foreign countries, and having myself made do with a lot less. In some areas of daily life the 80-20 rule really does apply, e.g., other people can do 80% or more of what we do in the kitchen with 20% or less of the stuff we have. There is a level of material deprivation I would not be willing to tolerate long-term, but I do understand how to do it short-term if the need arises. It makes no sense to me, for example, how Americans respond to a disaster by running around buying loads of ICE. Some people live their whole lives without a refrigerator; you can surely make it for a week. (But then, I don’t usually have $500 worth of meat in my freezer.)

  6. Sharonon 19 Nov 2008 at 1:28 pm

    I think it is a interesting dance, to try and sort out what is valuable and what isn’t. I agree with everyone - some of this might be made better by a greater embrace of chaos, true. On the other hand, chaos takes time to manage - the process of running about looking for something you know you have but can’t find is a hassle to be minimized if possible.

    I can see Lydia’s point about valuing your things - at the same time, I think we all have some things that are in excess of value. That is, in the aggregate, my books are valuable - but that doesn’t mean every single one is necessary.

    As for Dewey’s point, I agree with you too - at the same time, I’ve been poor enough not to be able to afford a skein of yarn - we don’t have to be at the apocalypse to get to that point. And being able to make a gift or a pair of replacement socks when mine have holes is a plus. The skills are great - but most skills require materials that have a cost. Maybe our houses will make us targets - but I suspect that most American houses will have a good bit of stuff in them. The question is what the merits of that stuff is.

    I’ve been in the poor world and seen them make do with remarkably little - often in a culture of sharing that is very unlike the US. The thing is, if you live near the Amish or in the third world, the tools that you might need are often available, and someone in your neighborhood probably has one. On the other hand, I know for a fact I’m the only one in my immediate area with a grain grinder, a manual water pump or a copy of _Weeds of the Northeast_ - that is, part of my accumulation is collective, as well as private - I think these are things that are useful for the whole village, but the villagers aren’t there yet ;-).

    This accumulation thing is one of the hardest things for me to think of - I’m not naturally ascetic, I don’t come from an ascetic religion. I don’t think stuff is bad, for the most part, and I like, for example, that a lot of my books would have been taken to a landfill if I didn’t take them home. But it does take time and effort and sometimes energy. It isn’t really clear to me how to think about this.


  7. GidsMomon 19 Nov 2008 at 1:28 pm

    Hello, I have been reading this site for over a year, but this is my first time comment. We are currently downsizing and moving our family of five from 2400 square feet to just over 1000. So, “stuff” has moved to the forefront of our lives. We really do only use about 20% on a regular basis, the rest simply stresses me out. I am excited to get rid of it - no emotional attachments here, realizing I am blessed to have a husband who is on the same page. My bestest friend lives in a 3500 square foot home jam packed with “stuff” her husband claims they need.

    I also have children who literally couldn’t care less about the stuff. They are 3, 4 and 8 years old and I realize that it is my husband and I teaching them what to value (not that it is 100% working, my 4 year old wants an awful, big, plastic, Storm Trooper helmet for Christmas - UGH!). My husband and I were not this way before our 8 year old son. He is autistic and is so into what we call “his people” (grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends) and has no interest in things - just relationships. A really cool lesson for us. As I am getting rid of most of our posessions, the only question they had was, “Are the cats coming with us?”

    Thanks so much for this blog Sharon, its very helpful and inspiring (:

  8. Meadowlarkon 19 Nov 2008 at 1:39 pm

    Keeping and Accumulating… two very different sides of the same coin.

    We buy things that may not need replacing, but could still be replaced - one of the benefits of having good jobs and being our age - but we don’t discard the old. As in: after 20 years I think it’s time we purchased a decent set of silverware, rather than the nearly-falling-apart, mismatched set we bought ages ago from Target. But falling-apart or not, did I throw them away? Nope, because at some point our kids will be furnishing an apartment, and hand-me-down silverware is nearly a rite of passage in our family.

    We are at the stage in life where we are purchasing things we did without for years, but the make-do items we had will be saved for our kids and they can re-start the cycle. Because of this, I don’t feel bad for having a basement full of “stuff”. They’re not excess, but rather left-overs.

  9. Ravenon 19 Nov 2008 at 1:41 pm

    Dewey: “It’s All Too Much” by Peter Walsh. I just read it. Am in a mood to never buy anything, ever again. :D That said, here’s my take on the clutter issue.

    How much you can have is determined by how much space you have. You can’t make more space, and you can’t make five feet of stuff fit into three feet of space. Matter can be neither created nor destroyed– it’s a law. So, if you have the space to store three suitcases of “just in case” clothing neatly, in such a way that the clothes do not get ruined by mildew or bugs, and in such a way that the suitcases are not impinging on living space (i.e., they are not under the bed, on the floor, or tumbling down from the top shelf of a closet) good on you, store your suitcases of clothes. I don’t.

    More importantly, is storing “just in case” clothes more important than storing something else that could fit in the space those suitcases take up– another two bags of wheat, for instance, or a stockpot or… you name it. Would the people who might arrive at your house to wear the clothes appreciate fab clothes more, or a bowl of wheat berry chili? Might some of them make do with wearing your current wardrobe– of which there is probably more than enough to clothe a dozen people? (Speaking from self knowledge here.) In other times, people had far fewer clothes and wore them much longer between launderings. I know, eeeeww, but in an emergency… In other words, prioritize.

    Lastly, is the stuff you’re storing causing you to fidget and feel like you’re suffocating? If the stuff you’re storing for other people is so important, what’s it doing mouldering in your basement or shed or whatever? Why can’t they take their own stuff, if it means that much to them? Any time you have so much stuff it’s negatively affecting your daily life, it’s time to be generous and bless others with it.

    Don’t just toss stuff out. Give it away, recycle it, or compost it if it makes you feel better. Repurpose it into a chicken coop. I don’t care. But don’t let it run your life and fill your mind with chaos. It’s so much easier to cook with fewer things on the counters, and it’s easier to live with less stuff.

  10. Paulaon 19 Nov 2008 at 1:43 pm

    My mother has had an undiagnosed hoarding disorder for years. My dad is on the fringes of that same disorder. Now that they are senior citizens, it seems even harder for them to “let go” of anything. The whole stuff thing has ruined relationships, visiting, holidays, etc.

    My family (husband and two kids, two cats, bunnies) has always lived in smaller spaces. Small space is prohibitive to “stuff.” Even so, we gather our share of clutter. I have developed several rules about our posessions that I’m sure you’ve all seen before.

    Sort first, and either:

    1. Throw it out
    2. Give it away
    3. Keep it
    4. Sell it
    5. Trade it

    Some weeks, as I complete household duties, I go through the house and pick ten items out. I put them in a pile and decide what to do with them. I then make sure my plan is quickly executed.

    I do believe in stocking up certain things for the future such as kids clothes and outerwear, socks, parts, tools, staple foods, etc. I’ve decided that it’s better to buy things now as a hedge against inflation or as a cushion from a job loss by either my husband or me. Not sure which way our economy is going . . . inflation or deflation. A deflationary depression sounds like the future. Any thoughts?

  11. Alanon 19 Nov 2008 at 1:46 pm

    Well, my beloved wife might think that I’m pretty close to Dewey’s husband, but I’m pretty sure that I’m at least a couple of steps below his level (I don’t shop garage sales or eBay for tools — possibly because I have all the tools that I know how to use). I don’t deny, though, that I seem to have inherited my Dad’s pack rat tendencies.

    My (our?) problem seems to lie in having a large and diverse set of interests in addition to our desire to have a (very well) stocked pantry and workshop. Between our couple of thousand books, our several hundred CDs and DVDs, our old vinyl collection, my wife’s art (she works in a number of media), her professional interests and orchid-growing hobby, our love of good food and wine, our camping hobby, our large (and growing) garden, our drawers full of photographs from our pre-digital life, our support of many progressive organizations and charities (and consequent deluge of printed materials), … it gets a little depressing just typing out this (incomplete) list.

    It’s not that I don’t know how to organize our things and how to get rid of truly extraneous stuff, it’s finding the time! What activity do I give up to spend a several weeks just sorting, listing, organizing and discarding/recycling? Do I stop volunteering at the 4 organizations where I regularly help out? Do I let the outdoor gardening work slide? Do I let my already-inadequate housecleaning deteriorate? Do we give up our not particularly active social life?

  12. Lisa Zon 19 Nov 2008 at 1:56 pm

    One day recently I found a couple of bread bag twist-ties to be the perfect thing for whatever I was doing. Now, I only keep a few of those twist-ties around and have always thought that people who have a whole drawer-full of them were a little nuts. But that day, when I was using a couple of them, I suddenly had a panicked thought “what if there really are no more twist-ties someday!?”

    I mean, my heart literally skipped a beat in a moment of true panic. Maybe I should be saving more twist ties? Or maybe I need a break from all the doom!!!

  13. Gracieon 19 Nov 2008 at 2:04 pm

    Our children are grown now with children of their own, so I’ve lost a whole lot of stuff in the last 10 years or so. We live in a fairly small house, so I am merciless when it comes to paring down. If I haven’t used something in six months, it goes. The only exceptions (and there are a few) to this is: Material, yarn, books, scrapbooking supplies, children’s learning supplies. I do keep some clothes here at the house for our granchildren, who come to stay and play. My husband and I have one closet of clothes and one dresser in our bedroom. That is it. When things get out of hand, I have to get rid of what we don’t wear, or what is becoming old. I try to give it to charities, if they will have it.

    It’s hard to get to a happy medium. I also hang clothes, while keeping a dryer. I wash clothes in the washing machine, because it’s hard for me to do otherwise now, but suspect one day I won’t have a choice, so I have the supplies to do so. I have kitchen tools that will be used when electricity may become much more expensive. I use my oven now, but try to use as little as possible. We also live between two worlds, and it’s becoming harder to do so.

    I envy those who have made the transition to another way of life, and wish our health were so much better, because we are both willing to make that transition, but health issues hold us back.

    Until next time.

  14. AnnaMarieon 19 Nov 2008 at 2:06 pm

    16 months ago when we decided to move 2500 miles it was clear that the contents of our 3600 square foot home with 2.5 car garage would not be easy or cheap to move. We started selling off everything. Over 12 months we sold more than half of what we owned, replaced a few things and thought we had downsized pretty handily. We fit into a Suburban and a 24 foot truck for the move.

    It wasn’t enough.

    Our home now is 1400 square feet with an attached 400 square foot barn, 400 square foot basement and a 200 square foot shed. The basement is not conducive to storage so we only keep a few things down there like stored water, propane and very long term freeze dried stuff. The shed has all the outdoor tools that used to live in the garage and the barn is my pantry, outdoor kitchen and catch-all area.

    I now have rules for the house. Nothing gets purchased unless it is a replacement for something else that is gotten rid of, consumable (yarn and fiber fit here along with food) or for business purposes. No baubles, no books unless they are Kindle based, no DVDs because we can download from Apple and store it that way. No clothing, we have boxes stored for future needs as well as fabric to make more.

    I used to see my UPS man once or twice a week a the old place and did a weekly run through of TJ Maxx, Ross and the thrift shops just to see what I could find (of course you always find something). They are hours away so no longer tempt me and my UPS man is more of a once a month visitor now (I still buy some food online and of course, yarn).

    I find that not shopping means I have more time to spin and knit. Going to the library is a social affair as well as a treasure hunt. I am slowly ebaying even more excess detritus of years of consumer behavior which is paying the bills this winter.

    It’s a complete change of lifestyle for me but with your help over the past year, Greenpa, Chile, Crunchy Chicken and several others who have gone before, it has been far less painful than I thought it would be. In fact, I like it.

    So, I guess my point is, physician heal thyself. Dig in and de-clutter and rightsize, downsize, use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without. You’ve taught all of us how over time, now it’s your turn.

  15. NLAon 19 Nov 2008 at 2:16 pm

    I struggle with clutter, too much stuff, not enough room, confusion and overwhelmed by this, on a daily basis. This seems to have become more difficult in the past 2 years since I, like many who read this column, really are living in 2 separate worlds..the “normal” and the “prepper”.

    I could minimize quite a bit if I truly believed that I could replace that item or items in the future. However, not being that hopeful, I need to think if we would we or could some family member or neighbor might really need it if things get tougher.

    I am prepping in a serious way, trying to garden more aggressively even tho’ we live in an un-hospitable elevation for that purpose (short growing season), and trying to think of the “unthinkable”.

    Caught in 2 different worlds.

  16. homebrewlibrarianon 19 Nov 2008 at 3:15 pm

    A conversation I had with my mother in the mid 1990s was the turning point in my consumer lifestyle. She had been the executor of two of her elderly family members’ estates upon their deaths (which were pretty close together) and had to face two enormous houses completely stuffed with, well, stuff. We were talking on the phone one day and she said she had decided that we were not to give her any stuff for her birthday or Christmas anymore. She did not want her children to have to deal with an enormous housefull of stuff upon her demise. Her exact words were “I don’t want you girls to have to go through what I went through.”

    That conversation resonated with me and would not leave me alone. First, it was simply picking up the odd bits laying around unused and donating them to a charity. Then I read “Simplify your Life” by Elaine St. James. As time passed, I became less attached to and more critical of the stuff all around me. After several moves, a divorce and the death of both parents, I now live in 600 square feet of living space. I still have things to get rid of and when that happens, that 600 square feet will seem pretty vast.

    For some reason, my identity is not realized through my stuff. The friend whose unit I’m renting also lives in the same size unit - but his stuff crams that unit, the crawl space under the building, underneath the second floor porch which is the length of the building, two outdoor sheds, his car, part of the backyard, another friend’s cabin and a 20 x 30 storage unit. Trying to get him to get rid of anything nearly causes him to have anxiety attacks. The friend with the cabin tells me it’s because his entire identity is all that stuff. While I find that somewhat shocking it just makes me realize that I’m not part of the norm.

    Even without a partner or children, I continue to spar with the Chaos monster. The only horizontal space in the house that I am able to keep mostly cleared off are the two, rather small kitchen counters. And that’s only because I moved everything on them on to a small folding table. Friends who visit can either sit in the one folding chair without books on it or share space on my tiny little couch with my two cats (most prefer the cats). I’d need several days advance warning to clear enough space for four people to sit around my table. What clutters up my house is stuff I use and want to keep but without a proper storage location. So I totally understand Sharon’s dilemma. My fantasy is to spend a month organizing everything in my living space. *Sigh*

    So for me it really isn’t a Stuff vs. Chaos issue. It’s just me vs. Chaos.

    Kerri in AK

  17. Shambaon 19 Nov 2008 at 3:28 pm

    I’ve done nothing but sort through “things and stuff” for almost 2 and 1/2 years! I had all my Mom’s stuff from her apartment in a retirement home when she went to an Alzheimer’s care unit. she only had one bedroom there. Everthing bit of “stuff” had to have a decision made about it! A good deal when to a homeless shelter, family homeless shelter, a good deal of stuff went to cousins since it was family stuff and souvenirs. then there were the untold numbers of photos, and I love photos. Then there was stuff that I could use that I kept.

    then I’ve gone through my whole house since I retired 18 months ago and pulled out all kinds of stuff to recycle through Goodwill and other such places. Then I emptied my storage space–more photos and boxes of slides plus household things from my parents house.

    I’m extraordinarily tired of deciding about “stuff”! but I learned what I had and what I wanted to keep and could pass on so someone else can use it because someone always can use what you can’t.

    I’m down to only what I can keep in my own house even it it still needs to be organized. A friend and I have an ongoing discussion about keeping stuff or not as we don’t know what could be useful in the future. I think this way when I’m in stores anymore, whether it’s food stores, clothing stores, any kind of store including Goodwill. Is there something here I could/should get now because it might not be available in the future?

    I have also learned that getting rid of “stuff” , especially good usable stuff, is extremely liberating and releases a lot of emotional energy sometimes. Let it go to someone else to use … a couple of very old blankets are on my front porch for the cats to sleep on in the cooler nights.

    This post resonated with me an awful lot!

    Good luck with decisions about your stuff all of you,


  18. NLAon 19 Nov 2008 at 3:47 pm

    I have found a CD that has been enormously helpful to me. I first got a library copy and then thought that I really must own this for reference.It is the only plan I find I can use on little and big challenges.
    Get Organized the Clear & Simple Way. Marla Dee
    8 CDs in all. Try Amazon. Good luck

  19. Rosaon 19 Nov 2008 at 3:54 pm

    My downfall is books. I had purged down to the amount of book shelf space we had after getting rid of the unstable, not-toddler-safe bookshelf in our living room. That was three years ago and we’re thinking about adding another bookshelf now.

    The other one was the “ideal me”, the one who read the classics, learned to play the cello, fixed small appliances, and was going to knit more and make a quilt someday and might need a whole bunch of yarn…I got rid of all the craft supplies I didn’t use anymore, and the stuff I never did get around to (the local punk quilting guild was very very happy with my collection of band & movement patches and denim pieces). Oh, and the clothes that haven’t fit since I was 24. And the 5 inch heels - my clubbing days are over.

    Those decisions were a little difficult. But I think when you start digging in you’ll find a layer of things that are really easy to get rid of (at least mentally) - clothes that don’t fit your kids any more, infant supplies someone else will use, stuff like that.

    It’s not easy though - I still, four years into my decluttering project, keep a cardboard box by the front door that we gradually fill with stuff we don’t need. And it keeps getting full. After Christmas and birthdays I donate a lot of stuff still in the box.

    The thing to keep in mind is that even if things get scarcer or more expensive, the good will you have built up by giving away or long-term lending will still be valuable.

  20. Marnieon 19 Nov 2008 at 3:57 pm

    I don’t know. On one hand, when there is endless credit and endless “products” to buy and endless advertising, then yes, i can see how this purify-thyself-through-editing-your-life becomes important.
    However, i think it’s only applicable in a culture where all the children move on to establish their own houses and there is no sharing, especially not of households. Then people need all the same stuff all over again!
    And yet -one of the comments above - Alan’s, i think - your house sounds like a lovely place to visit! There is something to the idea of maintaining a bountiful, comfortable household and taking pleasure in items for which we have worked hard. And if we worked hard together and the people who come after us are satisfied with what there is (instead of the newest and latest), then a bountiful household becomes a pleasurable responsibility to maintain, a delight and a treasure to share, and a gift to hand down and over to others.
    But when that balance is gone, when shopping becomes a hobby and a way to fill a void, then what becomes of the things that you’ve stuffed into the back of your car is, of course, a problem.

    Sharon - your house could become the local library ;-)

  21. shoshanaon 19 Nov 2008 at 4:45 pm

    I really wanted and would have used “stuff” when my kids were young and we were long on energy and short on time and money. I was always annoyed that my very wealthy parents did not share their stuff with their adult kids who were starting families and needed space and stuff. Now, in my 50’s, I couldn’t care less about stuff. As my parents are finally starting to shell out their belongings, it’s too late! I’ve already made do or done without and am getting rid of my stuff too. So, my note to myself is this: share your stuff early and often when people really need it. Don’t hang on to everything until your dying day. My other note-to-self is that it’s not necessarily a good thing to pawn off your stuff on your kids. It can really be a burden. As we’ve been moving my MIL into a retirement home, she has wanted us to take everything to our house. Her sterling silver flatware is lovely, but I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. Her full sets of martini, highball, brandy, champagne and wine glasses are exquisite but come on! It makes me mindful that if I offered my stuff to my kids, they might graciously accept it but they also might resent it. You really have to think about this “stuff”! -Shosh

  22. Susan in NJon 19 Nov 2008 at 4:49 pm

    I’ve spent the last several years sorting through a lot of possessions — my aunt died, we moved, my mom moved, my boss said he was closing the office, we cleaned out a lot of storage sheds. I hate it, but I don’t really like living the minimalist life (been there, done that). I work in a profession that still requires a lot of paper, and paper tends to stick to my fingers anyway. Both my partner and I come from families where both parents had/have accumulative tendencies (though not clinical hoarding) — partly a symptom of the times they lived through, and also equipment heavy hobbies, not to mention the collections.

    My mom came to visit recently and asked whether we found all the stuff oppressive. Sorting, moving, and sorting again after a series of basement floods has worn her down plus just getting older and not being able to find what she wanted is disorienting. Thinking about it, I was able to say no, there was a lot and I’d like to pare it down but it wasn’t oppressive. And she found our house comfortable. Victory of sorts.

    Having her stay with us for a while also made me realize (re-realize?) that what can seem excess for two people rapidly becomes enough for three.

    Key necessities in our attempt to bring peace to the war of the worlds in our house are endlessly reused and relabeled banker’s boxes and metal rack shelves, sometimes on wheelsm and sometimes with canvas covers. Thus we can accomodate, organize and, despite orthopedic limitations, shift around the house and even out to the garage as necessary the business equipment, the files we must archive for professional reasons, the books, the media in just about every twentieth century format except (I am happy to say) 8track, the associated electronics, the art supplies, the musical instruments, seasonal/bulky cooking gear, window A/C’s , gardening supplies and equipment, etc. Plus by reconfiguring the units we get utility carts and extra workspace as necessary. It wouldn’t work if our house wasn’t so nicely open plan or if we had young children who would want to climb the shelves . . . oh, wait, wasn’t that my partner I saw using a shelving unit as ladder (at least it didn’t have wheels). Plus it’s always easier to sort through things a box at a time.

    On a lower level of organization, I can deal with chaos on the level of all the sewing notions in one place but not sorted, etc. but I like some open space and I don’t like things spilling out on my head when I open doors. The garden supplies/equipment and kitchen cabinets are approaching my intervention threshold as what should be all in one place no longer is.

    I also really like freecycle for getting rid of those things that can’t really be donated, but that you think someone might have a use for.

  23. Jillon 19 Nov 2008 at 4:56 pm

    Here’s one thing I’ve been thinking about regarding the clothing part of “stuff.” Lots of folks seem to believe that we all have enough clothing in our possession to last a lifetime, but I think we need to consider exactly what kind of lifetime we’re envisioning here. If it’s a life which requires you to do heavy, dirty physical work, then I think it had better be a decently sized wardrobe. Our family shops only at thrift stores, which means that our clothing is already gone through one person’s lifetime, so it isn’t perhaps as durable as newly purchased clothes. Still. I farm part-time, and work in my garden/hauling wood/feeding animals fulltime. And within three or so years, my jeans and shirts wear through at the seams and rip out at the knees and elbows. No amount of patching and mending is going to make those clothes last a lifetime, believe me. Eventually, they just sort of fall off of me (sort of like the photos of tenant farmers from the 1930s–that’s me in my work clothes). Soil, especially if it gets wet, will cut through denim and cotton and even leather gloves, fairly quickly. It’s like sandpaper that sticks. So I’m stockpiling the heck out of durable clothing, because the reality of field work (I work about two acres by hand), done with hand tools, is that it will utterly destroy your clothes.

    That said, I don’t know what to do about the chaos of stuff. I have a lot and it drives me crazy sometimes. We have good friends who are minimalists, and their houses are spotless. They spend much less time maintaining their stuff than we do, and frankly, I envy that peacefulness. But their particular brand of minimalism makes them SO not ready to provide for themselves for any length of time.

  24. AppleJackCreekon 19 Nov 2008 at 5:01 pm

    The thing that worked for us, finally, was the decision to standardize the boxes we use for storing ’stuff’. No more mismatched boxes, and everything gets sorted into a box with things of a similar kind.

    We opted for UHaul boxes in the small and medium sizes, since we had a number of them, and they’re sturdy and stackable. The medium ones hold clothing or spare bedding without being too heavy, and the small ones are good for ‘kitchen things’ and shoes and heavier items. We have a bunch of banker’s boxes as well, the kids find them good for toy storage, plus they are useful for any number of other purposes too - the removeable lids make them perfect for things you access semi-often.

    We are pretty ruthless in our filtering, and we give away whatever we can’t reasonably see ourselves needing … but with the onset of peak oil awareness, and the arrival of a decent amount of storage space, it’s become easier to say “we may need those, let’s hang onto them” rather than “well, if we need more, we can just go buy some”. This thinking has been applied mostly to things like dishes or glassware, things that won’t go bad over time and could well prove useful: a set of drinking glasses has a long life expectancy, but it’s not infinite … so having some spares downstairs seems like a good idea, since we have the space. Plus, if someone else needs them, well, we have them to share.

    The trick, as Sharon has mentioned, is in battling the chaos. Enter the boxes.

    Uniform sizes make more efficient use of space. For us, the price of purchasing the boxes from Uhaul or Staples is worth it just for that.

    Using a piece of paper with a DETAILED list of what is inside, taped to the side of the box so it’s visible when looking at the stack also makes a big difference.

    Banker’s boxes fit nicely on shelves and are easily accessible, while still looking neat from the outside (we are putting up more shelves, at the moment we are still in the ‘pile ‘em up’ phase of organization).

    I make it sound like we’re all organized, but we really aren’t all there yet. There is still a huge pile of “to be gone through” stuff in the middle of the floor, and there are probably ten weekends’ worth of sorting to be done in the crawlspace, but we have a plan, and are making a dent as time permits. Over the winter we’ll probably be able to do more … summer is for outside work. :)

  25. Ravenon 19 Nov 2008 at 5:23 pm

    Good point about the clothes. I should have specified that when I was talking about storing three suitcases of “in case” clothes I was picturing the kind of clothes most people hang onto– slacks from the early nineties, a dress you wore three times, two black silk blouses, a pair of red heels that you love but that hurt your feet, etc. etc. It would certainly make more sense to store three suitcases of Carharts and Dickeys! :)

  26. Greenpaon 19 Nov 2008 at 6:17 pm

    Sharon: “It isn’t really clear to me how to think about this.”

    I’m almost positive of two things; which may help. Maybe. Sort of.

    1. This subject has been a topic of endless discussion for the last 55,000 years; starting with caves, going though tents, mud huts, and on to McMansions. Endless discussion and opinion. Folk tales from many cultures deal with it- you’re almost certainly familiar with one of my favorites, where the wife unhappy with the small house sends the husband to the rabbi for advice. “You have chickens, yes?” “Yes, Rabbi, you know we have chickens.” “Move the chickens inside the house.” “… um… what??”

    2. I’ve known tons of people who have moved, remarried, gone through epiphanies, etc. And as far as I can tell, it is none the less a Law of the Universe: The Quantity of Stuff Will Expand To Fill The Space Available.

    Undisirregardless of all other factors notwithstanding.

    I live in a tiny house- have for 32 years. Really tiny- downstairs is 15 feet by 20 feet. I think of it as living on a yacht. You have to be a miser with space usage. Nonetheless. Stuff accumulates; breeding at night in the corners.

    Eh. That’s life. :-)

  27. TheNormalMiddleon 19 Nov 2008 at 6:21 pm

    This area has been easier for me in my life because I’ve just never been a “stuff” person. Don’t get me wrong, I love books as much as the next person, and I like to have nice things.

    But when I have extra shopping money, I’m more likely to treat myself to a nice meal out, a movie, or something like that. I’m definately more of an “experiences” person.

    I have friends who are shoppers and my MIL owns about 100 pocketbooks, literally. Everyone is different.

    The biggest help in our purging of stuff was when we moved into a tiny 800 square foot house last year when we sold our home. We had no choice but to purge, and I refused to pay for 3 storage buildings of stuff until we found a new forever-home.

    When I did that purge, I realized many of my excesses were silly; I had 5 spatulas. Who needs 5 of them? I tried to be extremely practical and ruthless in my decluttering. It worked.

  28. Sharonon 19 Nov 2008 at 6:36 pm

    I guess the thing that sticks on me is the question Alan raises - how good a use of my time and energy is clearing out stuff. I’m all for giving useful things away - I’m not at all a hoarder, and I’ve endowed five or six different families with my baby stuff, furnished a few starter houses for friends, etc… But the whole “decluttering will simplify your life thing” seems like a mixed bag to me - a. I doubt my life will stay decluttered, given the forces driving it to chaos and b. I’ve seen how hard it can be to make sure the stuff you give away really goes in a useful place - I’ve seen the dumpsters behind thrift shops, know that the rattier clothing gets sold to the third world poor and shipped in bales over the planet, that half the “recycled” electronics go to toxic landfills in Uganda…. I don’t know that I think it would be worth it for me to buy nice bins and boxes to put everything in, I’d rather not Kindle - I like that books don’t use any power, and while I have some issues with the clearing out of the family stuff after death or illness, I also have profited from that - my house is furnished with things passed down by others to a large degree.

    I agree that there is definitely a layer of crap that I can get rid of, and I do try to - but living where we do, it often takes a lot of energy (seperate car trips, for example) just to get the stuff to someone who can use it - if it actually goes to them. So again, I’m rubbing up against this question - is this really something of utility for the world or for me - does lightening my load actually do any ecological good? Certainly not shopping does, but does getting rid of what already exists improve things? I think the answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no, but I’m not sure what the net is. If it only improves my life, I guess the question then becomes “how much of an improvement is it” - I think my house is a lot like Alan’s, and we’ve got the space. I have an inner desire for simplicity, but I’m not sure I can achieve it, or want to put in the effort. Nevertheless, I’ve got to do something in January ;-).

    I think we were headed towards sorting our lives in favor of the much-lower energy life until I got a career as a writer - that is, when I was primarily a farmer and homemaker, I was able to use the low energy stuff more, and to really give up some of that stuff. Ironically, doing this work costs me more energy, and gives me less time to shift over to the low-tech life. It ties me to technologies - I’m not really sure how to balance that irony either. I occasionally fantasize about giving it all up and going back to just living the life, instead of spending energy writing and teaching about it, and being able to be completely consistent. But as Emerson said, a foolish consistency - I get the sense that I might in the net be helping other people save more energy than I could ever get to myself.

    As someone said above, physician, heal thyself ;-).


  29. Sololeumon 19 Nov 2008 at 6:41 pm

    As our small farm is off grid we gave a lot of elelctlrical stuff away ie. heaters, toasters, juicers when we moved in two years ago now.

    But kept washing machine (actually bought a new twin tub - uses less water because you can reuse the wash water many times - start with withes and end up with my work trousers!) - blender and mix master which we still use albeit and the computer replete with 27 kbs dial up (!!!) all powered with 2 KVA generator power.

    Our 200 square metre shed (barn) is full of stuff that will come in handy - building materials - manual washing machine - manual wringer.

    As we are still working on our house we have electrical tools but also have bought and sometimes use old hand tools. Our tools are powered by a 7.5 KVA generator.

    We have a tractor, rotary hoe and slasher but mainly use these for our setting up.

    And have bought manual equipment such as flour mills, flakers, corn crackers etc.

    Like Bill Mollison told our Permaculture course - use the modern equipment including dozers to get yourself into a position where they are not needed any more!!!

  30. Lisaon 19 Nov 2008 at 6:47 pm

    “…uncritical hoarding…” This made me laugh. Not long ago, I had a peak oil panic moment. What if…what if….nail clippers became unavailable! Gasp. I admit to buying three pair and stashing them in our essential bags. I don’t know when or how this reality will finally crash but me an mine with have beautifully manicured nails.

  31. tasterspoonon 19 Nov 2008 at 6:51 pm

    Such a helpful post. I like to feel light and free of stuff, yet I also have a very difficult time getting rid of things that I still perceive to have value - value that I think would be lost were it to be anonymized as a charity donation. And, like Alan, my boyfriend and I participate in a lot of equipment-intensive activities.

    It seems to me that if you own your home and have the room, then possessions aren’t a problem. My problem is that as a renter I recognize that I am paying, every month, for square footage that my stuff gets to enjoy. Bigger place, higher rent. So the stuff needs to be worth that incremental increase in rent it requires - not to mention, the longer I keep it, the more expensive it effectively becomes to own.

    This makes sense in my head, but doesn’t seem to help me eliminate. Because when I’m evaluating an item, it’s like I have to keep it until I use it to justify the sunk cost of storage. Ay!

    I laughed at the twist tie comment. I had the same experience with rubber bands a couple of weeks ago.

  32. bryanon 19 Nov 2008 at 7:05 pm

    To avoid owning an automobile we own 2 racing bikes (for fitness), a track bike (for racing), 2 recumbents (for commuting & carrying stuff from the market), an electric bike trailer (for carrying really heavy stuff from the market), an electric scooter (when we don’t want to sweat here in the tropics), a motorcycle (when all the other options are too slow, too sweaty or too far). But it’s 1500 km to the next big town & so after 2 years we felt a little trapped & its not much fun doing road trips on a motorcycle at 35C and 90% humidity we bought a camper after renting one for a week for A THOUSAND DOLLARS! then put solar PV on it so the fridge always works…

    Our life is devoted to reducing the amount of stuff and yet it has taken over our lives. We usually rent 600 Sq ft flats; I can’t even imagine a house owner. A non-’peak oil’ aware friend has 11 internal combustion engines he has to maintain.

    Thanks for the excellent work.

  33. Steven Earl Salmonyon 19 Nov 2008 at 7:12 pm

    Dear Sharon,

    Perhaps we can all agree that we live in a round and bounded {not flat and limitless} planetary home, one which is rapidly filling up with people and peoples’ products, including millions upon millions of gas guzzlers, other polluting machines and thousands upon thousands of smokestack factories. This is to simply say, absolute global human population numbers are projected to reach 9+ billion people and the leviathan-like global economy is expected to grow in a near-exponential way by many trillions of dollars in the next 42 years…..provided we keep choosing to keep doing what we are doing now.

    Please consider the following proposal as an alternative to what appears to be a soon to become unsustainable business-as-usual course of action. This idea for change results from the realization that we have to protect both the Earth’s ecology and the human community’s manmade economy.

    First, the Earth and its environs are to be spared further wanton dissipation and reckless degradation; and second, the global economy needs to be rescued from becoming patently unsustainable in the relatively small, evidently finite and noticeably frangible world we are blessed to inhabit.

    What could be accomplished if the human family determined to provide “stewardship incentives” to people who choose to protect the Earth and its environs, the same kind of incentives that are now routinely handed out in huge annual payouts to people who are supposed to be growing the global economy….. something the economic powerbrokers are clearly not doing now?

    Please note that billions of dollars are being proposed in financial bailouts for companies building unsustainable products and factories and that year-end bonuses are being directed to “wonder boys” in investment houses and banks who have been uneconomically growing humanity’s global economy by collusively creating dodgy financial instruments (e.g., credit default swaps) and fraudulent business models (e.g., Ponzi schemes). These self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe have ignored requirements of practical reality and turned a great economic system into a paltry gambling casino, making themselves the primary beneficiaries of pseudo-business activities along the way. In the light of such avaricious risk-taking and conspicuous hoarding behavior, they can no longer be called by any name other than “thieves of the highest order”.

    Perhaps reasonable and sensible people can agree that the greed of arrogant, self-serving tycoons and bankstas no longer is to be condoned, much less extolled as somehow good, and that the preservation of Earth and its environs needs to given some immediate attention in terms of funding substantial stewardship incentives equal in size to the financial rewards now directed to the economic powerbrokers.

    By redirecting wealth, my generation of elders can begin to put the global economy on a sustainable, more reality-based foundation as well as to more reasonably and sensibly fulfill our responsibilities as good enough stewards of the Earth.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001

  34. Dianeon 19 Nov 2008 at 7:34 pm

    Lack of closet space forced me to start rotating my clothes seasonally to the attic. I set up a rack with a big garment bag and a dresser and move clean, ironed clothes up there every fall and spring. This forces me to consider every item every year. Then I take all of the really unwearable items (stained and torn) and pile them up in my sewing area so I can save the buttons and salvage scraps someday. Oh well, good intentions.

  35. Stephanieon 19 Nov 2008 at 8:05 pm

    I think the easiest way to organize is instead of looking at the whole is to take it piece by piece. Example - you mentioned you have CDs. You can make a goal for 1 week to organize all of your CDs. Personally, I keep mine in a CD book and it is fantastic. Just an excellent way to organize them and have all my CDs in 1 place that I could even put in a drawer if I wanted to versus having a shelf of some sort to hold the CDs in their cases. Not sure if you have available in your area, but for the CDs you decide you do not wish to keep, you might want to check out a new/used CD place. You might be able to get rid of a CD you do not wish to keep and in return acquire one that you wanted. Some places that sell music new/used music also sell/buy books, which might help in clearing out some books you no longer wish to keep.

  36. Barbon 19 Nov 2008 at 8:45 pm

    I am really interested to read this post and all the comments. My stuff, though pretty normal in quantity, has gotten completely disorganized in the past couple years. I got a dog (suddenly nothing movable or chewable could be within three feet of the floor), did major insulating in the basement and attic, welcomed a new partner (with minimal stuff, thank goodness!), and accommodated extended stays by a couple grown children and their attendant pets (stuff got moved around by the roomful). Add to that my perpectual “living in two worlds” time crunch and you end up with a house in great disarray.

    So I have set myself the task of getting it all organized before it is time to put in the garden next spring. My challenge:find the time and motivate myself to actually do the work. So far I’ve done two things: First, I’m using my vacation time to take off every Wednesday from now until the end of the year. Wednesday is project day; I don’t have to do any regular chores. Those can get done on the weekend as usual (or languish on the list, also as usual).

    Second, I have invited a fourteen year old girl from my community to work with me. She is the daughter of a friend who home schools, so her schedule is very flexible. Not only does her presence keep me on task, it is a great way for me to begin sharing parts of my life that I normally keep private. This is a big step toward building the helping/sharing community that I think is so essential for our near future. On top of all that, I can fantasize that I am providing her with a learning experience, broadening her perspective on the world.

  37. peteon 19 Nov 2008 at 8:57 pm

    I’ve gotten rid of a lot of stuff the last few years. And yet more could go. As someone who has always gotten by on a low income, it is hard to just dispense with stuff though - it might not be easy to replace if I wanted to (even aside from peak oil etc.). My own version of the tussle between simplicity vs. preparation is a little different. I’ve given up the dream of ever owning some land. I did have a house and garden for a while but that is gone now. I don’t see myself being able to own property again. I dream of an ultra simplicity, being so free of stuff to be able to be completely mobile and transient. But is it really viable? Gardening would be out for one thing which would be a great loss. And as an artist I have acumulated a lot of materials and equipment (and drawings/prints/paintings - thank heavens I’m not a sculptor!).

    The one thing I would never part with - my collection of maps! (though I have started getting rid of those not of any use for navigation)


  38. Kelli Brewon 19 Nov 2008 at 9:17 pm

    Sharon, I’m curious if you ever got the housemate(s) you were looking for. One way I look at our communal living situation is that, even though we have quite a bit of stuff, it’s divided amongst a number of adults; For example, we have one refrigerator, one furnace, one washer, one piano, one set of tools, etc. (although still an incredible number of books), but five adults and three children use them. If you have the extra space and you can find the right folks, it helps - as you mentioned in your book.

  39. Brian M.on 19 Nov 2008 at 10:02 pm

    From 1991 to 2005 I moved 13 of the 15 Augusts, usually into apartments, or small sections of a house (often within the same town, but also often cross country).

    That meant I had to go through and pack up my stuff almost every year, and often also gauge what size uhaul I’d need. Once, I let my dad talk me into a smaller uhaul than I thought I’d need and had to simply leave maybe 10-20 boxes behind.

    The discipline of re-contemplating my stuff every year, changed how I lived, how I bought, and how I thought about stuff. Often I wouldn’t even fill the space in my apartment, giving lie to Greenpa’s claim. Nomads often don’t fill the space availible to them, because they are thinking about the effort of hauling the stuff rather than the effort of storing it.

    I’m sure I seemed like a minimalist to others, but it was really just a function of moving so often and needing to pack and unpack my stuff so often. CDs and tapes, they take up hardly any space or weight, don’t even feel guilty there. Furniture is a far bigger deal, and tools, and kitchen stuff, and well … books.

    But when we had our first child, I had the experience for the first time, of too much stuff in too little living space, and I hated it. Absolutely Fabulous has an episode about fanatic minimalists, who become total craphounds after they have children, and that was my trajectory, and that of others I’ve met.

    On the other hand, I’ve lived in this house since 2005, and still haven’t come close to filling it, much less its spacious attic and basement (although we are running out of bookcase shelves). I think some diminished part of my past minimalism is just still with me despite the fact that I hope not to move, and have plenty of space, and will surely have to spring for a huge truck if I ever do move again.

    Of course when it seems messy, it can still FEEL like there is a too much stuff sometimes. But we hardly ever have to take things (other than food, or holiday accoutrements) out of deep storage in the attic or basement. Another obvious piece of advice, but hard for some people to bring themselves to do, is simply to have an annoying deep storage location, and start putting things in it if they haven’t actually been used within the last 3 seasons (basically the last year, but if it is seasonal and is only used in its proper season, it can/should go into storage too.) A lot can be solve by facing the fact that STUFF is seasonal much as food is, and if your mittens and swimsuits are both taking up closet space (in an active closet, not a storage closet) at the same time, then your closet is always going to feel more stuffed and chaotic than it really needs to. When you still feel space-pressed the 20-80 rule comes into play. Consider my … book collection. When I lived places I didn’t fill I’d put lots of bookcases out, and lots of books out to make the place SEEM pleasantly full (yes a place can feel too empty). But if a place had less space, well put 80% of the books in boxes and stack them (in a storage locker, or even in a big pile with a cloth over it, and lamp and call it an end table). You know you’ll want some of those books someday, but not very often, so you can make them densely packed and annoying to get at (label the boxes), and maybe leave the 20% of your book collection out on bookshelves. The 20-80 rule is iterative too, you use 20% of the stuff 80% of the time, but you also use 4% of the stuff 64% of the time! So making the really high traffic things ultra convenient to get and use makes sense too. Robyn has had a lot of luck here with a toy rotation policy, where a few of the most beloved toys are immune to rotation, but every few months, most of the toys are put in storage, and other toys are brought out of storage. Anything that isn’t used during its few months out goes into the give away pile rather than back into storage. There is less kid clutter, and the toys get to seem new multiple times, as the kids rediscover old toys they had forgotten. The same principle works for others I know for adult clothes, but we tend to buy little enough that we can keep most out at once, and not feel like our clothes-space is crammed.

    However even STUFF storage, only works if like a good CHATELAINE you occasionally look through the stuff in storage and confirm that yes you are still likely enough to use this some day to keep it rather than selling, trading or giving it away. You should never have enough stuff to be able to host a garage sale all by yourself (unless you know you are about to move to a place with vastly less space). But periodically hosting a garage sale together with other neighbors (or a church or something) is a perfect excuse to go through your stuff and make the decisions about what to keep and not again. Actually I think stuff storage and food storage are pretty similar except that stuff usually requires a while to spoil, and the problem is that we so often rediscover crap that we should never have kept for a week much less for 10 years.

  40. Brad K.on 19 Nov 2008 at 10:07 pm

    Sharon, you made a comment that caught my attention. “We don’t live close to a good library”.

    Most libraries exist in a cheap- oil culture.

    I bought a used book from, that turned out to be a library discard from a library in California. The book was copyright 2005. My local library routinely rotates out books, apparently based on shelf life.

    I know I learned many (several?) years ago - for my favorite science fiction, the copy on my shelves is more likely to be there when I want to re-read it, than the one I read a year ago from the library.

    Not every book I own deserves re-reading. Not even the reference books. But for all I know, I might have one of the last ten copies of “Unwillingly To Earth” by Pauline Ashwell. (Parts of the book are amazing, though the book is a bit uneven.) Some sequences of novels are adept at relieving bouts of depression.

    So I do count on the library to have more current topics and titles (well, current as of two years ago, with their procurement cycle), and not much depth for series and authors and historical references. Think the most recent three seasons of the History Channel, and they count themselves a “good” library.

    Rather than run out of shelf space, it appears my library removes an equivalent number of shelf-inches in books when they receive a new title for a given shelf. Which leaves their coverage of any particular topic or author spotty and varying over time.

  41. Chileon 19 Nov 2008 at 11:28 pm

    Sharon, as you know from my past decluttering challenge and my new one, I struggle with the same issues. While we have gotten rid of some “unnecessary” stuff, we don’t want to live an ascetic life. So, for instance, half the art went away but we kept the pieces we liked best. Do we need it to live a sustainable low-energy life? No, but it makes us feel less deprived without causing chaos (it’s mounted on the walls) and costs nothing since we already own it.

    Having a place for the stuff is really helpful. When it’s scattered, you will feel chaotic. Sometimes just a good sort to get rid of what you no longer need and then finding the right place to put it for use when you need it does wonders. We constantly have to tackle what we need because the criteria change over time.

    Right now, for example, we’re in a little bit of limbo. Until we find the property we want, we have no idea what size house we’ll be moving to. If it’s moderately sized, we won’t have to downsize furniture. If it’s small, we’ll need to let go of some just to fit. We’ve tentatively addressed some of those issues but won’t make final decisions until ready to move.

    Regarding storage, I currently have jars and other stuff stacked against exterior walls in the coldest rooms in the house. It’s not going to insulate much, but I figure every bit helps and I don’t mind the room being a little cramped. (Although I did have to move out lots of canning jars to make room for company last week!)

    Good luck with tackling this but don’t expect to come to a permanent long-term solution. What works now may not work in 5 years and you’ll probably have a lot more to be hauled off.

  42. Brad K.on 20 Nov 2008 at 4:03 am


    Two thoughts on the furnace.

    One - have a friend fire up the wood stove daily to keep the chill off and warm the pipes. Or have someone stay to keep the “home fires burning”, keep house plants and herbs watered and tended, tend any indoor animals (like a family cat to keep intruding mice under control). And also to keep the place looking ‘lived in’ to avoid alarming neighbors or attracting criminal attention.

    Two - electric baseboard heaters, or the electric oil-filled radiator type heater. Either are good for keeping a fairly uniform temperature in a room or area. I like my DeLonghi radiator type, which my sister hates - she likes that intense heat spot. I like the way it warms the whole room to about the same temp. If the area you want to keep above freezing is well insulated or fairly small, this might do the trick. It won’t do much to help when living off the grid.

  43. Anion 20 Nov 2008 at 8:11 am

    So much here relates to my life. I have been pondering “stuff” for awhile now. I am torn smewhat between the desire to be a minimalist- I dislike clutter- and sort of feel that having too much stuff drags you down in many ways- but also struggle with the reality of the needs of running a homestead and farm which tends to require “stuff”. So I am trying to keep a balance between the two. As well, I worry that some things may not be available or will be wicked expensive so if I can aquire it now relatively cheaply perhaps I should. Thus when the thrift store had bags of sheets and pillowcases for a quarter, I nabbed a few- provided lots of good sheets and also material which I stashed away. I guess for me the issue is whether the amount stored is reasonable- for my size household- or not. Of course what I consider “reasonable” might not be what others do- but several extra sets of sheets seems ok to me.

    I also try to be sure that I know where everything is and that it is stored out of the elements- I have had some stuff such as windows and lumber get ruined as I had nowhere to store them safely and they got rained/snowed on too much. So now I am trying to only store stuff that I believe to be useful and can be stored under cover.

    I was reading one of the books in the Earth Children’s series, and Ayla was musing over how much stuff she had accumulated and was traveling with now that she had horses to carry the load as opposed to just what she could carry on her back in a pack. The stuff she was taking made her life more comfortable and provided a margin of safety but again, stuff does seem to accumulate in response to a space to be filled.

    Some friends of mine though have serious issues with “stuff”- huge amounts they cannot part with, buying more stuff when they are already deeply in debt, houses so full they can barely move, storage bins they are paying monthly rent on way beyond the value of the stuff stored within, the works. I think if it gets to this point it is debiltating and crippling- and I know a number of people who have gotten to this point. It literally ends up controlling their lives as they spend massive amounts of time trying to find things, sorting out piles, dealing with the chaos, etc.

    I figure that I could always make do with less- if i don’t have something I’ll find another way to do the job- but if having it makes it easier and I can aquire it then I will- if not, I’ll make do.

    In terms of attachments to stuff, I would guess I have very few attachments to most of my belongings- really just for photos, instruments and such-most everything else could be replaced with a similar object if necessary so I don’t have any special feelings for the majority of it- just their utilitarian nature….

  44. Rebeccaon 20 Nov 2008 at 8:15 am

    Sharon, I’m a fellow bibliophile, so I understand the book thing perfectly. I have books everywhere -filling bookcases, on the floor, on the desk and boxes and boxes in the garage. I like books. By the same token, I like my music, though most of it is on the computer now. I will give up my cds when the juice fails for the last time and they are good for nothing but coasters. Until then, they stay.

    I’m trying to live in two worlds and its hard. I’m doing my best to live out my values but I just can’t afford to make some of the changes I’d like to make yet. And I am sick of people telling me I’m a loser for living according to different values than they do.

  45. N.on 20 Nov 2008 at 8:34 am

    The process of sorting stuff has and is still taking years. I was a packrat through childhood and college. I could easily fill up the back of a F150 up with all the stuff I “needed” for 9 months of dorm living. Part of my attachment was the frequency at which I moved around as a child. I didn’t have a lot of stuff because I couldn’t move around with a bunch of stuff. When my life stabilized and I had some money I went overboard. It wasn’t until I went to Iraq (with the military) and came back that I started to take a hard look at what I needed to be happy. Because of the military I still moved around every couple years and that actually provided a great opportunity to sort stuff. Because I either sorted it and donated/sold it/etc or I had to pack it and move it! Eventually I was able to live quite comfortably in a 700 sq ft apartment with a small amount of stuff in a garage. Then I got married to another pack rat :)

    Over the past year and through our move from NC to CO to PA we have managed to sort more and more stuff but we still have a 500 sq ft basement half full of boxes. It’s stuff he hasn’t sorted since grade school and now that he’s working 14 hours days, seven days a week the chances of it happening are slim. Instead I’ve turned my focus to our main living areas, getting rid of kitchen utensils or products we don’t use, clothes we don’t wear, art that we don’t like anymore, etc.

    I’m selling everything I can on Craiglist and made $65 last week. I hope to make enough to pay for Christmas presents but we’ll see. What we can’t sell or isn’t worth selling will be given to friends and family that could use it or donated.

    I realize it will take us many more months to clean out the basement and even then sorting stuff is a never ending process. We constantly have to assess what we need and what we may need in the future. We are keeping camping gear, cold weather clothing, canning stuff etc that we don’t use much now but could be very useful in the future.

  46. Fredon 20 Nov 2008 at 8:39 am

    I get anxiety attacks over all the stuff I have, too. But much of it is purely psychological. Some anxiety about “stuff” that requires maintenance using supplies from the industrialized world is justified as is some concerns about anything that uses electricity.

    Even some of the worries about fossil fuels are a little bit overblown as well. I have two vehicles, but one of them is twenty years old and won’t be around forever at this point anyway. Pretty much the same can be said about my almost three year old Prius. I have little doubt I will be able to make use of it until its useful service life has expired, but then what comes next? Well, some bridges are best crossed when one comes to them.

    Anxiety about things like clothes I don’t quite get. They only require storage. I don’t quite understand how peak oil will affect my ability to put things into a closet or bureau drawer.
    Actually, it’s probably a very good idea to stock up on things like clothes because inexpensive clothing and the inexpensively woven and knitted materials from which they are made will only become more and more expensive as time passes. I certainly wouldn’t get rid of anything prematurely that industrial society produces cheaply and that post industrial society will produce only at great cost or perhaps not at all. That makes no sense whatsoever.

    Other than that, I’ve always been pretty self reliant. I do 99% of all my own work around the house; very rarely making use of any outside contractors. My entertainments are “pre-industrial” in large measure; shooting rifle and pistol (I make my own ammunition), reading, gardening. I do build plastic model kits, but I have an inventory of well over one hundred unbuilt kits.

    Don’t know what else to add.

  47. Jennon 20 Nov 2008 at 9:51 am

    I struggle with dealing with my stuff sometimes as well, although it seems to have gotten easier recently. Part of this is from my parents, who are so anti-clutter that there’s not much extraneous anything left in their place and who consistently point out to me how much stuff I have. But most of it for me is trying to find some kind of a balance, especially now that I’m trying to pick up things as peak oil prep. I have a tendency to accumulate stuff and not let it go, but that makes for a full apartment and not as much room as I’d like for things that are really necessary, such as food storage. So, I’ve been working my way through my apartment recently and consciously thinking about what I really need, and what things aren’t a top priority - sure, there are things that are nice to have but some things, like food, will likely be more worthwhile in the long run. It’s a bit of a process, but I’m taking a slow but sure wins the race approach here.

  48. greentangleon 20 Nov 2008 at 10:04 am

    I’ve never been very good at balance or compromise. Decided as a teenager I had no interest in ever having kids, and have never regretted it though I enjoyed being involved with a woman who did. That decision made all the subsequent ones much easier.

    Hate automobiles so never owned one and haven’t driven one in about 25 years. Don’t believe in owning land, and never had any need for a house for all the stuff I never wanted.

    Like you, my purchases were books and recorded music (in 4 forms over the years–I’ve quit with the CD) and I had many thousands. I’ve sold many boxloads of both in the past couple years and am now down to about 300 of each. Though it gets harder to get rid of more as the total decreases, I’m hoping to get down to the top 100 of each. Like many aspects of our present way of live, the thought of being without them is much more difficult than the fact of not having them.

  49. Hummingbirdon 20 Nov 2008 at 10:11 am

    Unlike you, Sharon, I come from an ascetic background having been a nun. When I left in 1970 I made it a point not to have more stuff than I could fit in my VW Beetle, and that was 90% books.

    Now that I have lived in a rural house for 18 years, I find that stuff seems to accumulate, not inadvertently but because I have become aware that stuff may be difficult to come by in the years ahead. I almost never throw anything out that could conceivable be useful at some future date. Add to that the fact we are storing food and firewood at a greater rate than ever before and enlarging the garden and “stuff accumulates,” all of it useful, I believe.
    I continuously have to fight my “pare it down to the essentials” tendencies.

    So some of us are hoarders, some are spartans, and all of us are changing because of the obvious changes that are upon us.

  50. Jonon 20 Nov 2008 at 10:45 am

    For me, the best idea is this:

    ‘Some weeks, as I complete household duties, I go through the house and pick ten items out. I put them in a pile and decide what to do with them. I then make sure my plan is quickly executed.’

    Easily daunted by seemingly insurmountable tasks, the idea of taking many small steps towards reducing my stuff is something I think I can manage.


    Thanks Paula!

  51. Rosaon 20 Nov 2008 at 11:24 am

    Sharon, about the time thing - you said above that the chaos steals time, too. It really does. In my experience, piecemeal decluttering only adds maybe 5-10% to cleaning time when you’re doing it, and it saves a lot of time later. Especially for you, since you’re so far from town.

    If when I’m cleaning I’m also looking critically at things, and putting some of them in the giveaway or recycling box by the back door (or in the “needs to be returned to owner” or “regifting” boxes in the closet), then next time I’m cleaning I either have more “away” places to put the things we do keep, or less stuff to dust/wipe cat puke off/pick up to sweep under.

    Big decluttering projects take real time - I cleaned out our garage last year, so we could rent it out to a friend who needed car storage, and it took a week of day work and the cost of a dumpster. On the other hand, I made some money renting out the space and now our friend has gotten rid of the car so this winter our car can be in the garage, which will save me 15-20 minutes of scraping on the one or two days a week I drive - that’s a lot of time, over a six month winter.

    One more argument in favor of making time to declutter - unless you’re planning on moving soon, the space you have is the space you’re going to have. But your interests are going to get bigger; your library is going to get bigger; your kids are going to get bigger; your social circle keeps getting bigger; your responsibilities may get bigger too. Making room for all of those things by getting rid of what you don’t love and organizing what you do is honorable work.

  52. deweyon 20 Nov 2008 at 11:41 am

    I cut down to under 300 books, not counting cookbooks or books at work (though I still have a couple of hundred to get rid of in a garage sale). The last cut was well over 500 books. Doing it was really meaningful to me; it helped me to recognize which novels I really loved and which reference books were superfluous (though the hubby keeps adding more garage-sale gardening books, argh!). Moreover, I learned that there were some books I had never used much and secretly wanted to be liberated from. As long as the Japanese grammar book sat on my shelf, I could tell myself I would really learn Japanese grammar someday (and beat myself up for not having done so yet). By limiting myself to a certain amount of shelf space, I forced myself to admit that I was unlikely ever to do it, because other uses of my leisure time, and books related to those uses, seemed more valuable. Having sold the book, I’m under no more pressure!

    Interestingly, I think I could still apply the 80-20 rule to what is left. If I had to go live in a hut in the woods, I could pick 60 that would serve most of my real needs (although it would be agonizing, because I’d have to give up almost all the fantasy novels). Even that would be a bigger library than most private homes enjoyed not that many generations ago.

  53. Russon 20 Nov 2008 at 1:53 pm

    For another take on the specter of stuff, specifically how the enemy is trying to use it to prevent a withdrawal from Iraq, check out this Tom Engelhardt piece, “Stuff Happens”.

  54. Rosaon 20 Nov 2008 at 5:36 pm

    Ha! Dewey, I ditched almost a linear foot of Japanese books - the dictionaries & texts found a good home but the workbooks just got recycled.

    That’s another one of those ideals I just had to give up on. I have lost what little Japanese I ever had and there is absolutely zero chance I’ll ever pick it back up again.

  55. Sylviaon 21 Nov 2008 at 12:06 am

    My husband and I have been talking a lot about this recently. I’ve had many “lives” that have required entirely different tools and libraries- the classical singer’s tome of scores and cds, then the counseling/arts therapy grad student tome of psychology and arts, then the new mom’s collection of parenting/baby books, and now, since I learned about peak oil, all sorts of preparedness/gardening/cooking, etc books. Not to mention the storing of food and the buying of tools and massive amounts of projects. Oh yes, and the baby stuff, which even though we’re fairly minimalist, adds quite an imprint even if it’s all second-hand.

    But beyond all these things, the strongest “living in two worlds” space needed is, for us, the mental gymnastics efforts needed to reconcile living in one world while preparing for another. How do I talk honestly to friends about my fears for my child when, for example, they’re expecting their first and I don’t want to scare them? I mean, I don’t _know_ that this will happen and if I proclaim I do I sure sound like a nutjob. But it’s pretty isolating to feel like you can’t talk to people about what’s really going on in your life when they ask you, “So, what’s new?” Although at least we live in earthquake country, so I can get away with limiting it to saying I’m doing emergency preparedness. ;P

    And I mean seriously, how crazy is it to go from buying 25 lb bags of food and reading about how to compost human poo, to then going to work singing in a fancy shmancy opera house? Especially when you’re getting dressed up (by dressers, no less) as a russian peasant and singing about starving. It’s just totally surreal.

    And how to decide where to invest our finite time and energy- which world? do I try to expand my vocal studio, learn new music, make a website? Try to find a mft internship and work on getting my hours? Or do I buy seeds and make yogurt, learn to make recycled wool longies and how to take care of chickens? Oy vey. “My brain hurts”, as Michael Palin said…

  56. The Screaming Sardineon 21 Nov 2008 at 12:31 am

    I was, in many ways, fortunate in that I was forced to reduce. In August, after seeing how bad the economy was getting, I moved from New York to North Dakota, where I already had a house paid for. I figured there was no sense in paying an extra $2,000-3,000 a month to live in New York since it has such a high cost of living.

    Plus, I was starting to struggle to make ends meet. Because of that, I didn’t have much money to ship my stuff back. I moved to New York just a couple years before in a 24 foot U-Haul towing my overly stuffed SUV. I moved from New York with just what I could stuff in my car and sending around 40 boxes through the mail. While I miss a lot of things - like furniture and my washer and dryer - I have the most important thing - a house that’s paid for. I’m very grateful for that.

  57. Little Red Henon 21 Nov 2008 at 1:36 am

    Shoshana, I hear you! My mother recently mentioned that she supposed she might pass on all the baby clothing of mine she’d saved as well as some toys. I have four children, the youngest of which is 2. Why didn’t she think of this a decade ago?! I suppose I can save it all for MY grandchildren.

    One of my grandmothers, however, has had a steady plan of giving her things away as she aged. Everything of value in her home has a little label on it, indicating who is should be given to after her death. She downsized from the home she raised her sons in to a smaller home then again to a condo after my grandfather died. She has a very neat and cozy home but not cluttered with stuff she doesn’t need.

    In contrast, my other grandmother is drowning in stuff. She could never move because she could never move all her stuff. My mother goes to visit once a week to help her catalog just the photo collection. She became the archive of the family history. I love my family and geneaology is interesting…but even I don’t think she should have to preserve all that forever.

    The balance between wanting to declutter and hanging onto something because it might be useful (really useful, like life or death useful) SOMEDAY is difficult to find. Sometimes letting go of things means you are trusting that in the future somebody will help take care of you and your needs. Hard to do–but you can’t prepare for everything.

  58. teresa from hersheyon 23 Nov 2008 at 2:57 pm

    I think the amount of stuff we all have is a very clear indication of how safe, stable, and prosperous our society is. It is pretty hard to accumulate much stuff when you are running from the cossacks with only what you can carry and the clothes on your back. How many of us have a relative who remembers doing that? When you are constantly being burned out, flooded out, or chased out; well you sure don’t acquire three complete sets of dishes each a service for 12. Too much stuff is (unless you have a mental illness of compulsive hoarding) a problem of wealth and not of poverty.

  59. Rosaon 24 Nov 2008 at 12:43 pm

    Sharon, I’ve been thinking about this ever since you posted it, and it’s a problem I wrestle with myself a lot - I’m thinking this is an insoluble problem, like Leila said, because your mindset doesn’t match the culture.

    A lot of the people who get diagnosed as having hoarding disorders are people who lived through the Depression and can’t adjust to the constant stream of incoming stuff. You’re living with your head in a future Depression, pretty much - but your community is still in the cheap-energy present.

    If you really want to declutter, but feel that a lot of what you have is going to be necessary and irreplaceable in the future, maybe the answer is to organize a community group (library, tool library, skill-sharing workshop space) to take on those functions so you don’t have to do them yourself? For a while we had a Pagan library here, and what it did was take many, many unread books from people’s living rooms and put them into another room where people who hadn’t read them had access to them. Ditto the community bike-fixing shop - it’s everybody’s heap of bike parts in one place, where the chances of someone actually needing the part are greater.

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