How is your relationship with “stuff”? Is it healthy, respectful, detached? Or clingy, possessive and acquisitive? Do you bring only useful, beautiful things into your home? Or do you hoard every last tupperware container and stained shirt? Are you like me, falling somewhere in between—doing a careful dance with your posessions, clasping hands lightly and tenderly, taking a little too long to bid farewell to that once beautiful velvet jacket?
My mother is very good at giving things away. She has no problem donating half of her wardrobe (something I’ve witnessed firsthand), allowing once cherished items no sway over her sound judgment. If it’s no longer working for her, it’s out. She often gives jewelry to admiring friends and co-workers, taking it right off of her wrist or finger and graciously pressing it into a delighted hand. I, on the other hand, inherited my mother’s love of shopping, but not the ease with which she gets rid of things. Maybe it’s a result of moving around a lot as a child, perhaps there’s some “hold on to stuff” gene that skipped a generation. I don’t know. My mom used to joke that, as a teenager, I would save snipped off clothing tags and shoe boxes— you know, just for reference.
Now that I’m no longer sixteen and I don’t relish tripping over piles of clothing and their respective tags, I’ve become a person who acquires and purges in cycles. When I feel like my things are starting to encroach upon my personal space, I go on a give-away spree. Every three months or so, I fill up trash bags with sweaters, extraneous cooking utensils, well-intentioned but unflattering purchases, and haul them off to the Salvation Army. It’s freeing, cleansing, and all too necessary when you live in a Vancouver-sized apartment.
But there are always those few items that I pass over, feeling a twinge of uncertainty. Maybe I’ve had it forever, or it was expensive, or I just really like it. I have this nagging feeling that I should let it go. But I just can’t, so I pass it over for the third, fourth, or twentieth time, leaving it to hang in my closet, untouched. I’ve read countless articles on de-cluttering (and judging by the amount that have been written, clutter is an issue that a huge percentage of the population struggles with). I was already halfway through my weekend purge, a final push to make space in my closet, which was once again becoming cramped and disorganized, when I sat down and opened up the latest issue of “Whole Living Magazine” for a little mental break. Coincidentally, there was an article called “Clutter: The Long Goodbye.” In it, the author, Celia Barbour, talks about the emotional toll clutter takes on us. It’s not just a jacket, she argues. It’s a jacket that symbolizes a specific period in our lives. And whether the emotional baggage is good or bad is irrelevant. It’s baggage, and we don’t need it.
Suddenly, all of the little pieces clicked into place. I got up and went back to my closet. I looked at a polka dot shirt that I had been holding onto and realized why I hated it so much: it was a shirt I bought one day towards the end of my real estate career. Exhausted, fed up, and stressed beyond belief, I spent all of my money on clothes and facials, anything for a little endorphin kick between the never-ending phone calls and showings. The shirt looked perfectly fine, but it reminded me of that stressful time, of my ultimate inability to cope, of a completely different version of myself. No wonder I never wanted to wear it. I yanked it off the hanger and threw it into the giveaway pile. The same went for a purple, tartan shrug that I purchased just before leaving Chicago for Canada. How could a tiny piece of fabric be so loaded with emotion? I bought that shrug and then left my life as I knew it. I moved to snowy Canada for love, and for a long time I told myself that I could go back whenever I wanted. But I didn’t. And I won’t. Five years have passed. And life goes on.
As Barbour says, “Even if we have enough square footage to store all our unnecessary belongings, we should be more protective of our mental space. Because what matters more than the room things take up in our house is the room they occupy in our brains, in the stories we tell ourselves to justify holding onto them […] Getting rid of stuff means having to say goodbye to the sense of security it provides—security that’s largely make-believe but that exerts a powerful hold on us all the same.”
One thing after another went into the pile. It was quick and easy now. If I never wore it, if it contained too much emotional significance, if I even had to think twice about it, out it went. Don’t misunderstand: de-cluttering isn’t about willfully throwing away our emotions, pretending certain life events never occurred. Throwing out a shrug doesn’t get rid of the emotional baggage attached to a big decision. It’s about allowing us the freedom to deal with things on our own terms, in our own time—not every single time we open the closet door. It gives us more mental space to grow into our future selves.
I realize now that the key to de-cluttering my closet lies in giving myself permission to de-clutter my mind. To let go and say goodbye— farewell, my tartan friend. Farewell, my younger, Chicago-dwelling self. I loved you. I love you still. But it’s time for the next great thing…