If you ever want to feel completely ridiculous about yourself and this culture, just pull everything out of your house, sit it in the front yard and then stand back and look at it.
I know, this isn’t something most people normally do unless they’re in the middle of a home improvement project, which we are. Larry and I have spent the last two weeks painting the walls and laying new flooring. It’s slow going because we’re frugal, frugal here being defined as “too cheap to hire someone to do something we can do ourselves.”
Of course, you can’t paint walls without removing pictures and emptying bookshelves. And you can’t pull up carpet and lay new flooring without removing every single piece of furniture and emptying every single closet. And you can’t do all those things without being faced with the reality of just how much useless stuff a family can accumulate over time.
And you can’t take stock of all the useless stuff you have without feeling a bit uncomfortable - especially if you’re the type of person who prides themselves on not being materialistic - like I do. Or like I did before this wake-up call.
Because as much as I wanted to, I couldn't ignore what was sitting there on my lawn. Mount Materialism.
Books I’d already read and won’t read again but couldn’t bring myself to throw away. Shoes that didn’t go with anything but were too cute to part with. More clothing than we could ever wear. Shelves that we didn’t need but - once put on the wall - began to magically fill with collectibles. Magazine holders filled with dusty, neglected magazines. Canister sets that held nothing. More cookware and place settings than is practical, even if we threw regular, huge dinner parties. More linen than we can use, even if we changed every bed in the house twice a day. Stuff that I'd picked up at local thrift stores because it was such a good deal.
And then there were the toys. That was particularly upsetting. Granted, quite a few are gifts from family, but it was disconcerting nonetheless. When I began going through the toy chest, Lucas thought it was Christmas as I pulled out toy after toy he forgot we even had. No less than three elaborate train sets, an avalanche of stuffed animals, literally thousands of matchbox cars. Puzzles, games, electronic learning gadgets, dollhouses, action figures galore.
Where had all this stuff come from? Who are we?
We’d chosen a taupe color for the main room and kitchen, olive green for the bedrooms, and cheery golden-yellow for the sunny playroom, with white trim throughout. Our awful industrial tile floors and carpet we’re replacing with a honey-colored wood floor. It’s perfect for our vision of a simple, Zen décor. So naturally the thought of bringing the clutter back in was out of the question.
But parting with it? That’s where I experienced a most interesting transformation. Larry and I were committed to some dramatic downsizing, but at first it was hard for me. Every object I picked up had a story behind it, everything represtented some moment or feeling or experience. But those had passed and couldn't be retrieved, not even with the help of a cute fairy statue or shiny necklace. Why keep those things when I could rely on my memories?
"Cut it out," I told myself. "Look at your life in this moment and ask yourself, 'What does our family need to be comfortable and happy?"
As it turns out, not very much at all.
The knit cape from Ireland that I got for a song at the local resale shop. But it had been how long since I wore it - two, maybe three years? I didn’t need that. Away it went. The bread machine I got for Christmas? It has all the bells and whistles but I’ve only used it one time, as I prefer to make bread by hand. It went into the box with the cape. Same with the espresso maker, juicer and food processor and multiple coffee makers. Books were harder to part with, especially some of my favorites. But if I enjoyed them so might someone else. I filled box after box, imagining how much some other reader would enjoy them.
Furniture went, too. Magazine holders, little tables, decorative cabinets. For me it was liberating. The more I got rid of the freer I felt, shedding clutter as I shed my attachment to it. And I began to see all the worthless possessions I’d been clinging to not as treasure but as dead weight. How much cost and effort had I spent acquiring, maintaining and cleaning this stuff? I didn’t even want to think about it.
Now I know what Jesus and Buddha were talking about when they spoke about the pitfalls of materialism. Coveting, hoarding and doting on things we don’t need sure can divert our attention from the things we do need.
In the end, we’d filled our little U-Haul sized trailer not once but three times and hauled everyting into storage. Within the next couple of weeks, we will excavate Mount Materialism to determine what goes to our yard sale and what goes to charity.
So what did we consider essential enough to keep? A bare minimum of furniture that includes one new mission-style futon and one very antique 6-foot pine farmhouse table. Books too valuable, educational or important to toss. Our music and software collection. Computer equipment. Art and sewing supplies. Three changes of linen for each bed. A few vintage quilts. Artwork and handiwork created by family members. Just enough toys to fill one tall cabinet. Just enough stuffed animals to fill one shelf. Lucas' wooden Thomas the Tank Engine set and train table. Just enough dishes for our family and several guests….you get the idea.
Uncluttered house, uncluttered mind. The ultimate makeover. We should have done this a long time ago.
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