Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Extreme Makeover

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 d├ęcor. 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.

Just enough.

Uncluttered house, uncluttered mind. The ultimate makeover. We should have done this a long time ago.


Elaine said...

Congratulations Morgan!
I went through a similar experience last summer while cleaning out my basement. Problem is that I am not done!
I laughed my way through your post seeing me in every detail. I pride myself on NOT being materialistic - yet, the crap is all around me!
As usual your writing motivates me and I am determined to clean out my stuff! Ironically, as I did this last year I found a Feng Sui (sp?) book on decluttering - Here is the ironic part - it was under a pile of books and papers! My negative energies have no where to escape!
Enjoy the tranquility of a "new" home!
Have you considered selling your things on eBay - I never have but heard people have great success with it! Lots of luck unloading the "un-necessities"
Disappointed I didn't see a picture of your front lawn!

way2much said...

not sure why my link didn't go through!

Morgan said...

I've got a few things that I could probably sell on eBay for decent money. I just need to inventory everything. I've been a little frantic today, though. I think I accidentally boxed up a $200 software CD. I can't find it anywhere and even though it's installed on my computer I need the disc for my laptop.
I considered taking a picture of the stuff on my lawn, but I couldn't find my camera until yesterday and still don't know where I put the battery charger. Eventually I'll get everything I need back together, or at least I hope I will.
Good luck with you basement. In a way I'm glad I don't have a spare room for my stuff. It would probably have all just been transferred, as opposed to gotten rid of. :-)

eaglewood said...

When we moved back to TX from AR it was amazing how much STUFF we got rid of, just so we would not have to move it.

Now after being back in TX for 2 years it is building up again.

Morgan said...

We've made a new rule for our household: Less impulse buying and to get rid of something whenever we get something new.
Larry actually started off on a good foot. He had to buy a new truck and got rid of the two he had in the trade. What's the good of having a house if you can't see it for all the vehicles in the driveway? :-)

eaglewood said...

We tried that once, it did not last long. I think I may be the biggest offender though. I tend to be a packrat. I never know when I might need something.

Morgan said...

Larry is like that. He's very practical and is really afraid that if he throws something out he'll need it later. I admire him for that, but after two hurricanes blew apart our storage buildings he realized that the headache of having stuff blown all over the place was more of a headache than not having something you only use once or twice a year.
His hoarding has always been more practical while mine has always been more sentimental.
One thing that's worked for us is to put stuff in an unmarked box, tape it shut and stick it somewhere. If in six months or a year we can't remember what we put in a box it's a pretty safe bet that it contains nothing we need.
I wrote an article on ending clutter several years back, and the organization expert I interviewed said it really helps to donate stuff because it alleviates some of the guilt that what you're getting rid of will go unused or unappreciated.
She also had some good advice on what to do with all that school and art memorabilia you get from your kids. She advised taking a few things and framing them to represent the bulk of the work. That helped me a lot.
There were other tips, too. I'll dig them out and post them when....when I can find the article.

thimscool said...

I'm inspired to purge, but I simply don't have the time. So the "garage" collection will simply pile higher.

Morgan said...

Luke, had we not embarked on this remodeling project, I'm not sure I could have brought myself to tackle the mounds of junk we've accumulated. If your stuff is already in the garage, pick a warm, sunny Saturday morning, open the door and stick a garage sale sign on your lawn. Total strangers will emerge from nowhere to take care of the problem for you.

untoweechja said...

I had dinner with an old college roommate recently. He works for the Federal government and has had posts in Korea, Pakistan and Hong Kong. Now he's on his way to Northern China. With the constant moving and living in modest (by US standards) dwellings, he's well adapted to a spartan lifestyle.

In fact, it seems he's become something of an evangelist for simple living because on more than one occasion he remarked at how he thought it was absurd that his family and friends buy these huge houses and fill them up with junk.

I guess it's like television--stay away from it long enough and soon you realize you aren't missing a thing and can get along quite well without it.

Morgan said...

Several years back, during my time as a staff journalist and before my return to freelancing, I was so frustrated with my fast-paced life and couldn't understand why I was always so discontent even though I was making decent money.
Then one day I was in the bookstore and picked up a book called "Choosing Simplicity" that really changed my life.
It was my first introduction into scaling back on materialism and prompted me to study the messages of simplicity inherent in the teachings of both Christ and Buddha.
One of the things I've always found frustrating is that so many people today equate material things with blessings, when that is a false message.
I restructured my life with an emphasis on experiences and family rather than "stuff," and realized that so much of the conspicuous consumption that goes on today in society is really an attempt to fill a void with things rather than love.
And while I bought less, I didn't really let go of all the material things cluttering my home and still accepted cast off stuff and took advantage of thrift store finds, telling myself that since they weren't "new" then I wasn't really wrong to acquire them.
This experience of actually seeing all the stuff in the yard brought home to me how far I have to go, though. It seems our culture is geared towards stocking and hoarding, and your friend has the right idea.
People who travel are usually less materialistic, I think, and more likely to see the value of experiences over things. Your friend is certainly on the right track.
Your comment was awesome and meant so much to me. Thanks so much.

Taylor said...

Morgan, your home make-over sounds beautiful and I think it's great that you are doing it yourselves. It gives one a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction after it's done. And quite often you'll do a better job than anyone you could hire.

As for avoiding clutter, I'm with you there. I simply don't see the real need for most 'things'. Except for books, I can easily give things away or throw them away. Simplify, simplify.

Roland said...

Whenever my wife sees a missionary family and we see what little they live on, we think the same thing.
We actually declutter quite a bit, but still have our piles of stuff. Mostly books and they are mostly for home-school purposes.

Untoweechja - "I guess it's like television--stay away from it long enough and soon you realize you aren't missing a thing and can get along quite well without it."

I second that.

Thanks for the encouragement Morgan. We needed to do some more tossing anyway. :)

MikeT said...

It's hard to be a geek and throw away music, movies, books, hardware, etc. that still works. That's basically all I have besides clothes. No real need to have anything else.

What I've found to be a good way to declutter is to try to buy a lot of hard drive space for movies and music, copy it all there, and box almost all of the originals up. It's helped me cut down on clutter.

prettylady said...

I traveled for years, as you know, and purged most of my possessions, leaving the rest in storage. I didn't miss it.

When I moved to New York, however, intending to put down roots and unpack my earthly possessions once again, the movers did not deliver my truckload for two solid months. I felt like I was living in an empty shoebox. Since I had no friends and no job in New York, it was a very dissociating feeling.

When the truck finally came, I was amazed at the good energy it shed on my bleak surroundings. My books, my artwork, my few pieces of good furniture, the various crafts collected from travels--they were all so comforting! I felt like my personality had come back to me.

However, now I am due for another purge, particularly as I am subletting in a couple of weeks.

One hint for feng-shui-ing your library--arrange the books by color. I know this is shocking; as a former librarian, I had a very tough time with the concept. But even if you organize first by subject, and then arrange each shelf by color, you will be amazed at how restful the effect is. A loaded bookshelf is one of the most visually chaotic objects there is, and it is too large to ignore.

Morgan said...

"My books, my artwork, my few pieces of good furniture, the various crafts collected from travels--they were all so comforting! I felt like my personality had come back to me."

Oh, those things are what makes a house a home. My problem was differentiating between what truly had sentimental value and what was simply clutter assigned more value than it deserved. Some things I've kept are things other people might have thrown away - a faded sewing tape measure that belonged to my grandmother, a rather plain but funky little painting done by my grandfather. Other things I got rid of are things people would have kept, like a nearly new Krups coffee maker I got as a gift. But my grandfather is gone and while the coffee maker is nice I don't really need more than one, so I kept the one with the built-in grinder. :-)

"I know this is shocking; as a former librarian, I had a very tough time with the concept. But even if you organize first by subject, and then arrange each shelf by color, you will be amazed at how restful the effect is."

THANK YOU, Pretty Lady! That is the best tip I've gotten, for organizing my still-bulging bookshelves remain the Dreaded Chore. Now I can't wait to try your idea!

JohnR said...

Is the juicer and food processor one unit?

If so, how much?

And does that include shipping?


PS: I would have the garage sale. Then donate the leftovers to Salvation Army or whomever.

If you donate more that $500.00 worth of stuff you have to have receipts to verify the value you placed on the items.

It is easier to have the garage sale, and then value the leftovers at $500.00 when you donate. It is probably easily worth that.

My brother works for the IRS and told me that is the easiest way to handle it if you lack receipts.

Morgan said...

The juicer and food processor are separate units, although I think someone at work might have dibs on the food processor. I have no idea how much shipping would be. The juicer is heavy. We don't use it since Larry got The World's Most Expensive blender, a VitaMix that could make smoothies out of Volkswagen parts should we ever be so inclined.
Thanks for the tips. I'd already planned to do just what you suggested. I don't think I'm going to put very high values on the stuff that I'm getting rid of. I really hope most of it will go at the yard sale so I won't have to pack it all back up and drive it down to Goodwill. If more than one trailer load is left I think I just may cry.

prettylady said...

THANK YOU, Pretty Lady! That is the best tip I've gotten, for organizing my still-bulging bookshelves remain the Dreaded Chore. Now I can't wait to try your idea!

You're welcome! Take a picture and post it when you're done. It's amazing how cool it looks, and how transforming it can be to a room.

El Borak said...

Booksbooksbooks, I have thousands of them (it helps to own a bookstore) and they are my hoard. I don't think I could ever get rid of them. I could leave them if I had to bug out, but so long as I have a home, I will have too many books.

In fact, I have many copies of some books (e.g. Peter Principle, Communist Manifesto, Moon is a Harsh Mistress) because I love my books so much I almost refuse to lend them, knowing as a matter of experience that I won't get them back. So I save multiple copies and give them away rather than lending. If I get them back, great, but if not I still have my own copy.

And there are plenty of books that I have never read but know I will need someday, out-of-print histories of the French Revolution, Partial sets of Bible commentaries; I have an entire wall at my office filled with books, and it's not enough space.

I could live without furniture and have lived without a bank account. But without my books, I would be poor indeed.

dlkjdfsa said...

I know you are watching me now. It's just too obvious. Email blocking bitch! Interesting that you let the ones through that make me look like a paranoid freak. Everyone, If I disappear in the next few days. It was the government that did it. Assholes.

dlkjdfsa said...

Can god be disproven?

I ask a question to answer the question. Can a cockhead unicorn be disproven? A. No, We can't be certain that evolution will play some strange dice and cause this animal to come into existence. There are literally an infinite amount of things that can not be disproven thanks to our powerful imaginations and the limits therein, which in a weird way proves the existence of infinity. Seeing as though infinity has just been proven moves me to my next conclusion about why it is irrational to believe in g0d and another tuff question. What is infinity? The simplest answer is something that has nether a beginning or end. Notice anything strange with that sentence? I called infinity a thing which in a sense it is. A thing can only be composed of two things which in actuality are the same thing, matter and energy. You may ask what does infinity look like? Stand before a mirror and you will see it. I'm not referring to you because you are anything but infinity. I'm referring to what you are made of, matter and energy. Once you die your body and mind will be given back to the universe. You see there is a funny quality of energy and matter. Neither can be created or destroyed. That being said, is why it is irrational to believe in god and also why the best logical definition for god is zero. Though a very strong theory and massive amounts of observable evidence we have been able to deduce that the laws of physics remain consistent all the way back to the first few moments of the big ban. Why can't we know the state of our universe in the first few moments of it's beginning? Because it is just to complex to use words or numbers to describe. This is where you would expect God to be hiding.The truth is nothing can come from a total void, also known as zero. And if God were to exist in any form there still would not be a total void an posses an even more ridiculous question. Who made God? Answer, Man made god. The good news. As shown infinity does indeed exist and zero can never exist and /0 makes number machines very pissed off. There is only one thing missing. If you haven't guessed yet it is you.You are 1. also known as an individual. You may be thinking that my logic is flawed because our universe had a beginning. Nothing has been shown that our universe is the only one and the thought gives me the creeps. Perhaps there is an infinite amount of universes and they are all made of the same stuff.

Spread the good news.

thimscool said...

Holy crap. Where did I put that tranq gun?

I think he's going for an oscar.

Morgan said...

Wow, Robert, thanks. That was so completely on topic. I hope the pharmacy gets your Ritalin back in stock soon.

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