But What If You Already Have Too Much Stuff? Part 1

Before I start a new project, I have to clear away The Stuff. When I get ready to do an interview, I clean off the desk and file or toss everything that doesn’t belong there. When I get ready to cut out fabric, I clean off the cutting table and the sewing machine table before I begin. I realized long ago that, for me, it’s impossible to work when I’m surrounded by Stuff. I can’t think. It’s like the Stuff sucks up all the oxygen my brain needs in order to process ideas.

Last Friday we talked about collecting stuff and how to avoid that. Today we talk about what to do if it’s kind of already too late. The Stuff is already in your house. What are you going to do?

This thing about Stuff became a big deal to me in 2006, when my mother died, and it continued to take up room in my brain when, two years later, I started writing Creative Time and Space. Ever since, I’ve been really aware of the stuff that takes up space in our lives and the time it takes to take care of that stuff–cleaning it, organizing it, protecting it, repairing it.

Because I was an only child, the disposition of my mother’s Stuff fell entirely to me. Because my mother grew up during the Depression, she had always hung on to her stuff, and as she got older, it became something of a problem. She never threw away anything, and she often bought multiples of cheap stuff she didn’t really need. Sorting and tossing and trying to find a home for a houseful of stuff was really depressing, especially since much of this stuff had never been used. She was one of those people who Saved the Good Stuff for those special occasions that never seemed to materialize (because, of course, no occasion, no matter how special, is Special Enough for The Good Stuff).

When the book came out in 2009, I wrote a bunch of blog posts about this, about saving and hoarding stuff, about the importance of using The Good Stuff. I wrote about having all these sets of colored pencils–really nice colored pencils! All the colors!–and about how the only ones I ever really used were the stubs I’d had since childhood, the ones my dad brought home from the office when he got a new, shiny set (he was an exploration geophysicist and used them to color maps; when I was a kid, I imagined that all my dad did all day long was color, and for a while, I thought being a geophysicist must be the coolest job on the planet).

Anyway, I wrote back then about my own experiences in trying to get rid of stuff, about trying to weed out and simplify. It sounds easy enough, getting rid of stuff, but when you start trying to do it, you find it’s way, way more complicated than you ever imagined. If you’re like many of us, it’s not like you’ve got piles of garbage in your studio, and if you haul those to the trash, you’ll be good to go. Oh, no. If you’re like most of us, it’s that you’ve got things you’ve never used but might use some day, and you’ve got spares of things you like a lot, never mind that you haven’t actually used the original yet. You’ve got duplicates of tools and tools that your best friend had and so you had to buy–even though you think saws are kind of scary and can’t ever imagine actually plugging one in and actually turning it on. Yikes.

We had a 12’ x 24’ storage building built in our backyard before my mother died, after she had fallen and we thought we were going to have to store all her stuff for her. After her death, when I’d dispersed her things, I had this big building that was only partially used for things from her house, and I started moving in stuff from our own house. And moving stuff and moving stuff and moving stuff, and~~at some point, I stopped and went, “Wait a minute. What’s wrong with this picture?”

In a nutshell, this: if I don’t use it enough to have it in my house, why am I keeping it? And so I started getting rid of it, and because so much of it was Really Good Stuff, I couldn’t just toss it in the dumpster. In the years I’ve been weeding out and trying to simplify, I’ve figured out some ways to do that and so, in my continuing effort to Be Useful, here are some suggestions for if you’re feeling, you know, just ever-so-slightly overwhelmed by your Stuff. There are a few of these suggestions that allow you to make a little money off your Stuff, but most of them require you get past the attachment you have that would demand that; most of them are ways to give your stuff to someone who would want it, no strings attached. It’s a great exercise in letting go.

Next time, in Part 2, I’ll offer some concrete suggestions about how to do this.


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