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Weeding the Garden of Our Possessions
Whatever shall I do with all this stuff?

by Yvonne Trostli

When people start to think about simplifying their lives they often go through a somewhat predictable process. First they realize they’ll probably need to shed some of their possessions. The possibility of dealing with less clutter is exciting, a relief. But as soon as they consider the project more carefully their enthusiasm comes to an abrupt halt. One woman wonders how she can possibly let go of the 100-year-old books her grandmother gave her. Another cannot imagine parting with her favorite magazine collection, which she started with the first issue 25 years ago. The amount of work involved -- going through everything, sifting out the treasures you want to keep – often seems so overwhelming that most people soon drop the idea and leave everything as it is . . . sometimes for years!

And with good reason. Letting go of “stuff” is very hard to do. It takes time. Most of us have no training for it whatsoever. More significantly, we have some kind of relationship, consciously or unconsciously, with everything we own. Every possession connects us with specific people, events, seasons in our lives; each item has brought us some measure of comfort, beauty, joy, utility, or lack thereof. Contemplating what to shed means connecting with each object, confronting its place in our lives, and then deciding what, if anything, we want to do with it.

It can be easier to do this with some items than others: clothes that no longer fit, the typewriter that’s broken. You can only own so many pieces of furniture before running out of room. But what about the photo albums of a marriage to a former spouse, the notes from those favorite college courses, the butter urn your great-grandmother used?

However daunting the task of paring down possessions, most people recognize that putting it off will only aggravate the problem significantly, on the physical as well as mental, emotional, and energetic levels. A cluttered space can also make your life feel more cluttered. You waste time looking for things you can’t easily find. Perhaps you even end up buying a new gadget because you can’t find the two or three others you already own.

You can’t see the things that bring you delight because you have too many things to look at. Your space begins to make demands on you -- to keep things clean, in order, stored, in good repair. Mess brings stress.

Thinning out the contents of our homes or work spaces may be difficult, but it is definitely doable and usually very gratifying. It helps you to come into the present with what you own, and to let go of that which is no longer truly alive for you. People report feeling liberated after clearing even a small space; I notice their relief as they look around them, see only what they need and love without feeling burdened by what to do with it all. I have even observed a perceptible change in the physical spaces that have been weeded and organized -- a palpable freshness and light, like a pillow of energy that has been put out to air in the sun and then plumped up.

Three years ago I downsized my possessions by at least 60 percent during a move to a much smaller living space. It was not an act of voluntary simplicity and I didn’t know about the many resources now available for these kinds of projects. Still, I made many discoveries that have continued to prove invaluable and that may also help you on your way.

GET GOOD HELP: I hired a professional organizer to help me get started. Her support was invaluable. She helped me develop a game plan with steps to take given the time I had; just as important, she also helped me decide what to let go of doing. Friends were also enormous help . One friend patiently sorted through all my financial records with me so I could recycle as much as possible, and she even carted the recycling to the appropriate mixed paper site when the time came.

Good helpers can help you stay focused during a process that is easily overwhelming; they can encourage you to address the hard questions rather than leave them for another time. With support you can better know where you are in the process, maintain your momentum, keep the energy moving; you’ll diffuse the emotional charge of the experience, and with buddies to keep you company, you’ll get through the hard stretches more easily.

SORT LIKE WITH LIKE: I now consider this one of the golden rules of any organizing project. It proved especially valuable since I needed to deal with all the possessions in my entire home during that downsizing experience. For example, I went to every room in the house and found all the books I owned and brought them to one location so I could see how many books I had, what kind of books, how much space they occupied, etc.

This rule is useful even when dealing with more limited work areas. If you’re working on a closet, for example, you might begin by sorting all the items by category. Then, when you have all your clothes together and have sorted through them, consider working next with clothes in other closets in your home rather than moving on to an entirely different category . That way you continue to work with the same kinds of decisions over a period of time, which helps build momentum and makes deciding easier.

CLARIFY CRITERIA FOR MAKING DECISIONS ABOUT THINGS: For example, when dealing with books I asked myself:

  • Could I easily find the book again elsewhere, like in a library or friend’s collection? If so, I could more easily let it go.
  • If not, would I end up spending a lot to buy it again, and was I willing to pay that price?
  • Did I use the book as a resource fairly often, or was it part of a long-ago period in my life?
  • Was I so attached to it that I would feel a lot of pain if I let it go?

These kinds of criteria are individual to you and the category of items you’re considering. Other questions might be: Do I love it? Do I need it? Is it beautiful? Do I have room for it? Many of the books available on organizing and simplifying offer a set of questions to ask yourself as you’re sorting through things.

FIND A GOOD HOME: While my paring down my things I discovered that one of the main reasons I hadn’t wanted to deal with shedding possessions before was because I didn’t want to simply throw things away. I wanted to honor in some way what had become important and meaningful to me over time. So I began to think about who might like, or enjoy, or make good use of the things I had.

For example, I had a fairly extensive collection of two of my favorite magazines which I knew I would probably never reread, and I could also probably get back issues from the publisher. During one brainstorm I realized I could donate them to a nearby women’s prison and it gave me much pleasure to imagine these women getting nourished from these exceptional publications. I had to get special clearance, and someone to help me tear out the address labels to protect my privacy, and then I was free to let them go.

Thrift stores, local libraries, prison library projects, refugee relocation groups, disaster assistance groups -- the list of needy and welcoming homes is long. Recently I even heard of someone who takes some of her treasures on her travels and gives them away to people she meets!

HONOR YOUR LIMITS: Because this process can be very demanding it is critical to pace and be gentle with yourself and with everyone else involved. During any given thinning session there will be things you will not be ready to part with or to even to think about. If you have to pare down dramatically in a short period of time, you can defer the decisions by storing things with friends, or giving things away on loans for an indefinite period. Once you’ve had some time away from your possessions it will be easier to decide what you want to do.

CREATE HEALING RITUALS: Letting go of things -- however much you know you want to -- means separating from objects that have been important to you in some way, at some time. Cutting these cords of attachment, like any process of separation, can evoke a wide range of feelings -- grief, regret, relief, guilt, joy, emptiness. Make time for honoring what has been special, what you have loved. Create a sacred space for saying good-bye, giving thanks, blessing what was and facing into the unknown of what will be. Invoke help from allies, make time for healing. And make sure to celebrate your courage and hard work!

THERE ARE NO RIGHT ANSWERS: Weeding the garden of our possessions is a very individual process. You are the only one who can decide what is a weed; when and how you deal with it will depend entirely on what you love, find beautiful, useful, have room for. And these answers too will change as you, your values, and circumstances evolve.

It is a process that will teach you much about yourself, if you let it: your values , what is alive for you or not, how much you live by your own priorities or don’t, what creates stress and what brings sanctuary. I’ve discovered that no matter how much I want to live within my spatial means, I still bring in and keep more than I discard. One part of me who would love to live in a Zen monastery with its sparse aesthetics, is constantly squabbling with the one who loves the feeling of plenty that comes with a stocked refrigerator and sitting in a room surrounded by books and sacred objects all in full view.

There’s nothing simple about simplifying. This paradox seems to remain a constant part of the experience. Even so, the more you practice letting go, the more familiar the terrain becomes, which makes it easier to navigate and ultimately to enjoy the gifts simplifying has to give -- interludes of calm, space, clarity and nourishment in the center of life’s complexities.

I believe these are the gifts of a voice that is calling more loudly to many more of us now, yearning for us to discover and embrace what it means to live a simpler way.